HONG KONG — Hong Kong, often seen as a bellwether for democracy's prospects in China, opened a potentially decisive chapter in its history Sunday, as the winner of elections to the territory's top job pledged new steps to open up the territory's backroom politics.
Winning Sunday's elections for Hong Kong's chief executive was the easy part for Donald Tsang, Beijing's anointed candidate, who trounced his pro-democracy opponent in the elite committee that chooses the city's top official.
Now he will have to navigate the choppy waters between the citizens he rules and represents in Hong Kong, who overwhelmingly want democratic elections for his job in five years, and his political masters in Beijing, who are wary of free votes.
On Sunday, he promised again to seek an accord. "I laid out a solid foundation for moving towards universal suffrage" during the campaign, he said in an emotional victory speech.
Ten years ago, when China regained sovereignty over Hong Kong, some optimists hoped that the battle for democracy would have been won by now. Pessimists – of whom there were many – predicted the mainland Communist government wouldn't uphold its "one country, two systems" policy, and that the former British colony would be ground beneath Beijing's boot.
Neither vision has come to pass. But even as business booms in the thriving global financial center, unsettling questions of governance still cloud its future.
Hong Kong's constitution, or Basic Law, holds universal suffrage in elections for the legislature and the Chief Executive's office as an "ultimate aim," to be achieved in a "gradual and orderly" fashion.
That ambiguity has allowed Beijing to ignore the issue. But the challenge posed this month by Alan Leong, the first man to contest the chief executive election without the Chinese government's blessing, forced Mr. Tsang to promise a solution.
Can he fashion a compromise that satisfies the pro-democracy activists' aspirations without alarming Beijing? Most analysts are doubtful, but the democrats are keen to use the momentum they have gained during the election campaign.
"The democratic camp has to think more about their next steps," points out Christine Loh, a former legislator.
If Beijing does not concede democracy soon, though, "there could be a constant rumbling of discontent" that "would be very hard for Beijing to clamp down on," Ms. Loh predicts.
That clamp has rarely been felt over the past 10 years, most observers here say. The mainland has preferred to use its economic clout rather than a heavy political hand to influence Hong Kong affairs.
Hong Kong businessmen do most of their business on the mainland, and increasingly depend on Beijing's goodwill for their prosperity. "You don't bite the hand that feeds you," argues Willy Lam, one of Hong Kong's foremost China-watchers.
"Hong Kong's economy depends on China," he explains, "and that spills over into politics because no major Hong Kong businessman can afford to be seen supporting the democrats, or any party of which Beijing does not approve."
At the same time, pro-democracy trade unions say that they have felt no restraints on their ability to organize, and the judiciary remains the most publicly trusted of Hong Kong's institutions.
As Hong Kong's highest constitutional authority, however, the National People's Congress in Beijing has interpreted the Basic Law so as to discourage democratic reform. Beijing makes little secret of the support it provides to certain political parties, trade unions, and social organizations.
Overall, says David Yeung, editor-at-large of Hong Kong's premier English language daily, the South China Morning Post, "Hong Kong is still by and large a free society."
Many analysts and political leaders expect China to keep it that way, using the city as an incubator as it pursues economic and political reforms, says George Cautherley, a Hong Kong businessman who served on Mr. Leong's election campaign committee.
Anticorruption officials from the mainland have visited Hong Kong to learn what they can; Hong Kong's District Council offered lessons to Chinese officials organizing village elections.
Beijing has shown no signs of extending such experiences to full-scale democratic elections in Hong Kong any time soon. But Leong remains hopeful.
"If we can convince Beijing leaders that universal suffrage is really the starting point for solving the problems of governance that have been haunting us since 1997, that it will mean we can sustain a free and strong market that will contribute to a strong China," he says, "I am confident we can make a case."
Skeptics doubt that the Chinese government will listen. "They are very happy with the situation as it is," argues Dr. Lam, "and see no need to take a risk."