On the eve of this city's biggest election since the 1997 handover from Britain, no one is predicting that Hong Kong democrats will wrest power away from pro-Beijing lawmakers - though that is now technically possible for the first time.
Rather, Sunday's contest over the 60 seats that make up Hong Kong's Parliament will determine whether democrats, who favor direct elections and democratic reforms, can sustain their upstart "people power" movement in the face of great efforts by Beijing to constrain it.
Sunday's election is shaping up, in part, as a contest between "patriotism" and "reform," experts say. Beijing now appoints the chief executive of Hong Kong, but it wields only indirect control over the Parliament, a body that can, in theory, initiate changes.
Democrats say the coming election may be "free," but will not be "fair," due to lack of proper representation and recent intimidation campaigns they say originated in China - such as the coerced departure of three influential Hong Kong talk-radio hosts, all critics of the Beijing-appointed chief executive Tung Chee-hwa. Chinese officials deny these allegations.
This past week, official China orchestrated a patriotic good-vibes campaign here. For four days the Chinese Olympic gold medalists from Athens, including the new 110-meter hurdle star Liu Xiang, have been diving, ping-ponging, autographing, and smiling their way through Hong Kong like unofficial politicians.The sports stars are delivering an implicit message in shopping malls and subway stations: We are winners, vote for pro-China parties. Beijing also this week announced new trade deals with Hong Kong, new air routes to the mainland, and a desire to recruit Hong Kong talent to run the 2008 Olympics.
Yet if survey data released Thursday is correct, neither Beijing's upbeat offensive nor a recent negative whispering campaign against democrats may succeed: A record turnout of 54 percent of Hong Kong voters is expected. When asked, voters say they are going to the polls out of a deeply rooted feeling of "dissatisfaction," according to analysts with Civic Exchange, a think tank here, and the Hong Kong Transition Project. The democrats, who advocate direct elections and reforms allowing greater participation, may gain a third more seats.
"This election seems to be less about economics but about means to hold the government accountable," says Michael DeGolyer, head of the Transition Project at Baptist University. "Accountability and performance are important issues to voters, who register high levels of dissatisfaction."
In recent times, Hong Kong residents, in numbers that have confounded experts, have marched, voted, protested, and requested a leadership change. Polls show that 80 percent of residents want direct elections, and 60 percent want to have them as soon as 2008.
This spring, however, Beijing officials gave a blunt "no" to the idea of universal suffrage anytime soon - a ruling that helped bring out 500,000 peaceful protestors on the street for the second year running. Democrats here say Beijing's ruling goes past any previous understanding of the Basic Law which governs Hong Kong under the handover terms, and many do not accept it. US and British diplomats also suggested the ruling was an "erosion" of the formula of "one country, two systems" that underpins Hong Kong's special status of autonomy, which includes the idea that Beijing will not interfere in the city's affairs for some 50 years.
Compared with the mainland, Hong Kong is a bastion of democracy. But by Western standards, the political system in Hong Kong itself is not a model of voter representation. Of the seats up for grabs only half, 30, will be directly elected by Hong Kong's 2.3 million people. The other 30 seats, known as "functional constituencies," are known to mostly tow the government line, and are elected by only 160,000 people.
"The functional constituency seats are in no way fair," argues Christine Loh, director of Civic Exchange. "The system is designed to thwart the general will of the public."
In the past month, democrats were swamped by scandals, some actual and many rumored. Stephen Vines, editor of Spike magazine, argues that "Dirty politics has arrived in Hong Kong and there is every sign that it is being imported from across the border, where there is no tradition of elections, but little shortage of experience in vilifying political opponents."
This week a 40-page Human Rights Watch (HRW) report, based on dozens of interviews, claimed that Hong Kong elections were compromised by the atmosphere of intimidation, including acts of vandalism and threatening phone calls.
"The elections are free but not fair," says Minky Worden, a HRW official visiting Hong Kong. "There is a degenerating standard of human rights, plus the fact that under the Hong Kong system, both winners and losers get seats in the legislature."