Grass-Roots Elections to Test Patten's Hong Kong Reforms

Vote pits pro-democracy groups against pro-Chinese camp

GRASS-ROOTS elections in Hong Kong planned for Sunday are testing British democratic reforms and Chinese political control in the crown colony.

Although issues such as bus fares and garbage pickup will most directly affect voters, the election of 346 district board members will be the first poll held under Britain's more-democratic rules, which were nudged through the Hong Kong legislature in July by British Gov. Chris Patten and will help shape Hong Kong's political future, colony analysts say.

The vote is being viewed by Hong Kong political parties as a test-run for legislative elections in 1995, and in a number of areas is pitting pro-Chinese candidates against those favoring political reforms.

As a result of the Patten changes, the elected district board members will send 10 of their colleagues to sit on the 1995 legislature, enhancing the political significance of Sunday's vote.

Ironically, China is urging its backers to participate in the election despite its vociferous attempts to block the Patten reform package. It has pledged to scuttle the current political structure when Hong Kong reverts to Chinese rule in July 1997.

In late August, the nominal Chinese parliament voted unanimously to terminate political institutions set up by the British.

Still, China cannot be seen to marginalize itself since voters are not being swayed by the Chinese threats, analysts say. Hong Kong political observers predict about one-third of the colony's 2.5 million registered voters will participate.

According to a survey of 6,400 voters by the Social Science Research Center of Hong Kong University, published yesterday, 78 percent of the respondents said they would not be deterred by China's pledge to dismantle the British political structure. The survey predicted that pro-democracy parties are likely to get the largest number of board seats, although up to 50 percent of the slots could be captured by independents.

``China can't afford to sit on the sidelines and not try to shape future events,'' says Lau Siu-kai, a member of a Hong Kong advisory board for the Beijing government.

The vote coincides with the Hong Kong visit of British Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd, who arrived yesterday. Facing new obstacles to finalizing transition issues with China, Mr. Hurd will consult with Mr. Patten and other British officials in Hong Kong to draw up a strategy for upcoming meetings with Chinese officials.

Hurd is scheduled to meet Chinese Foreign Minister Qian Qichen later this month during the upcoming session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York.

Britain is confronting Chinese stalling in finalizing plans for the new airport and other infrastructure projects now under discussion by negotiators from the two countries in what is called the ``Joint Liaison Group.'' Despite British protestations of progress in the talks, a backlog of issues remain, analysts say. ``It's hard to see how all the business will get done, despite what the British side says,'' a Western analyst in Hong Kong says.

This week, China charged that the Hong Kong firm Jardine Matheson group was awarded lucrative contracts for a container terminal at the colony port for supporting the Patten reforms. Just a few days before, Patten had warned that economic confidence in the territory would be hurt if contracts were awarded on the basis of ``political correctness.''

In a sharp commentary released by the quasi-official Hong Kong China News Agency, China called Patten's statement ``a self-confession'' and said Jardine, the Hong Kong trading company most closely associated with British colonial rule in China, cannot be trusted since its headquarters had been shifted out of the colony.

``Now that you [Jardine] do not want to stay in Hong Kong and adopt a responsible attitude toward Hong Kong's future, how can the business sector and people put their minds at ease by allowing you to build and operate any major projects that straddle 1997?'' the commentary questions.

``China seems ready to do the deals it wants to accomplish and let the rest slide,'' says a Hong Kong politician who asked not to be identified. ``More than anything, China doesn't want to let Jardine, which it loathes, walk away with a major contract.''

Although the district-board poll is focused on local issues, it has also become a colorful and controversial contest. Afraid to rile Beijing again, the government barred Lau San-ching, a pro-democracy activist who spent 10 years in jail in China, from standing in the election by invoking a little-used residency requirement.

At the other end of the political spectrum, the pro-China forces were buffeted by a scandal involving the leader of the main pro-Beijing party, the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong. Tsang Yok-sing, an outspoken China backer who has urged colony residents to remain after 1997, was widely criticized when news reports revealed that his wife and family had emigrated to Canada. Mr. Tsang tried to counter the outbursts by pledging to remain in Hong Kong.

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