Citizens of Hong Kong flex their new political muscle

Life in competitive Hong Kong runs fast. In Asia's commercial hub, people set their watches five minutes ahead; they trade, eat, work, drive, and play at a relentless pace.

So when a million people took time out to vote last week in a minor district election - when a doorman brags, "I stood in line 20 minutes to vote!"; or when a businesswoman volunteers, "We sent a clear message" - something's up in the former British colony.

That something is a new street feeling of political self-awareness. It largely stems from last summer's huge protests over a draconian security measure and cynicism with the government's handling of the SARS epidemic. Locals and experts alike say the Nov. 23 vote reflects a desire for political reform that, in its own way, is an authority challenge for Beijing.

How China reacts may bear on the testier question of Taiwan, analysts say. In early fall, playing off the summer protests here, 200,000 people marched in Taipei in support of a separate identity for the island. In recent days, Taiwan President Chen Sui Bian, facing a tough election in March, has created a stir with his on-again, off-again threats to hold an independence referendum on the same day as those elections. China threatens war if he does.

District council elections in Hong Kong are normally a big snooze. But last week they brought a record turnout. It was a clear thumbs-down to China's hand-picked chief executive, Tung Che Hwa, who arrives in Beijing today for talks. The vote also spelled doom for the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong (DAB), the political party long associated with Mr. Tung and his policies. The DAB lost a third of its local council seats, opening the door for a larger presence of the Democratic Party and its allies, who are steady critics of Beijing.

Now the city is quietly buzzing with talk of direct elections and universal suffrage - something promised, but not guaranteed, under the Basic Law that governs the former colony. (Citizens can't cast a ballot for the chief executive of the city.)

"I'm happy that we are showing that Hong Kong people care about democracy," says Ho, a student at Queens College. "We talk about this a lot in school. I feel it can result in universal suffrage. That's what my classmates want."

Hong Kong leaders like Stephen Lam, secretary for constitutional affairs, acknowledge in dulcet tones a new reality in the city, even while carefully redirecting questions of political reform.

"Events make politics, and this is one of the biggest events of the political season," says Mr. Lam, speaking of the vote. "This shows that the Hong Kong people are very civic minded, and care about the future of Hong Kong. Whether we have direct elections is a question for the future."

High voter turnout in a city better known for its economic than political might, is seen as a blow to China's leaders. Beijing had given a series of gifts, patriotic shows, and economic incentives in an effort to soften Hong Kong's feisty summer attitude. On July 1, some 500,000 citizens peacefully marched in protest of an unpopular security bill, designed to curb political and religious freedom, which had been rammed through the Hong Kong legislature. The march was the largest in a decade and set off two later mass gatherings. The bill was tabled.

Beijing reacted coolly to the protests. It reaffirmed confidence in Tung by receiving him in the Great Hall of the People. It offered trade advantages for Hong Kong in the China market. And days after his October orbits around the Earth, Chinese astronaut Yang Liwei was dispatched here for a rally that drummed up sentiment for the motherland.

But the vote, which surprised many in Hong Kong's own ruling quarters, showed that feelings here ran deeper.

"Ask anyone in Hong Kong," says Lee, a mother out buying a new cellphone, who only gave her family name. "The vote was a statement of discontent.... We were sending a message to Tung and to the central government. Beijing says it is surprised. But our feelings have been circulating a long time. Why is Beijing so unaware of them?"

The coming months are shaping up as a sensitive jockeying period over political reform, even as the economy here showed vigorous growth in the third quarter. Political battle lines are being drawn over how a nominating committee for the next chief executive will be structured - whether the Democratic Party, which gets the largest number of direct votes in Hong Kong, will be part of the decisionmaking process, or even be allowed to field a nominee as the future chief executive.

Most experts doubt this will be allowed.

"The whole history of the Hong Kong turnover, the negotiations with the British and [former colony governor] Chris Patten, has been set up to keep the Democrats out," argues Michael Davis, a constitutional scholar at the University of Hong Kong. "Either the authorities will refuse to have any democratic reform at all, or we will see an effort to use the nominating committee to exclude the Democrats."

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