Hong Kong Pushes For More Democracy

Sunday's election gave Democrats a big win, and an incentive to push China to allow more directly elected seats.

The limited democracy that China has allowed in Hong Kong has left many people wanting more.

After last Sunday's election, in which Democrats won handsomely even though they could run for only one-third of the seats in the legislature - demands are on the rise for Beijing to expand democracy.

"One thing is certain. From now on, no one can say Hong Kong people are politically apathetic," says political commentator C.K. Lau. "The history of elections in Hong Kong may be short, but its people have learned fast."

The election was Hong Kong's first general election since being handed back to China last July by Britain. And it allowed far more democracy than Chinese on the mainland soil are granted.

Still, out of 60 seats in the territorial legislature, one-third were directly elected, while the remaining 40 were chosen from circles of special-interest groups with electorates as small as a few hundred, or in some cases, a few dozen voters each.

Voters turned out in record numbers (compared with elections under British rule) despite torrential rains.

Almost all the territory's popular Democratic leaders won. They had been out of office since China disbanded the Legislative Council (or Legco) following the handover and replaced it with a temporary appointed one.

Winners included Martin Lee, leader of the Democratic Party, the territory's largest political party, liberal independent Emily Lau, and others, making sure that the new Legco will have a vocal minority prodding the administration - and by implication China - to move faster on expanding democracy.

Of the 20 directly elected seats, 14 were won by Mr. Lee's Democrats and other like-minded politicians. This result came despite the shift to voting through proportional representation, which was blatantly designed by the temporary legislature to give the "pro-Beijing" camp a leg up.

"There are two kinds of dogs: lap dogs and watchdogs. In this election the watchdogs won, but the lap dogs are still in the majority," says a jubilant Martin Lee, underscoring the fact that two-thirds of the Legco is, by design, still composed of politicians sympathetic to business interests and Beijing's views.

Lee interpreted the results, and the surprisingly large voter turnout - 53 percent versus only 35 percent in the previous election - as a mandate for Hong Kong to move faster in introducing democracy at all levels of government, including the election of the chief executive. The territory's chief executive is now chosen by a electoral college of a few hundred members.

Hong Kong's post-1997 constitution, the Basic Law, calls for a gradual expansion of the number of seats in Legco elected through a wide franchise. Lee and cohorts can be expected to push for faster implementation of democracy, including amending the Basic Law if necessary.

That won't likely happen.

The Democrats don't have the Legco votes to bring it about and would not get the necessary endorsement from either Chief Executive Tung Chee Hwa or China. Nevertheless, the whole topic of expanding democracy, the same issue that roiled relations between Britain and China in the months preceding the handover, is back on the table.

Lee says China's Communist leaders shouldn't fear democracy. "A transformed Communist Party, like the reformed Kuomintang [party in Taiwan] can stay in power even in a democracy." He urged Hong Kong's representatives (chosen by committee) to China's National People's Congress to advance the cause in Beijing.

In a setback to Lee, President Clinton decided yesterday not to meet privately with him on his June trip to China.

Of course, when voters turn out in large numbers it often means they are unhappy with their government. Although generally satisfied with the way China has kept its hands off Hong Kong, many people are dissatisfied with numerous local problems and general economic malaise.

The Hong Kong legislature is in fact a pretty weak body. Members cannot introduce their own bills without prior permission from the administration. Nevertheless, the voters of Hong Kong wanted to make sure that it had its fair share of "watchdogs," even if they are outnumbered by the "lap dogs."

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