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September 15, 2004

Hong Kong Voters Reject Break With China


by Simon Parry

HONG KONG – Beijing's leaders could afford a wry smile when they heard that a political activist best known for burning the Chinese flag in public and carrying a coffin through the streets to commemorate the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre had been elected a Hong Kong legislator.

The surprise victory of "Long Hair" Leung Kwok Hung's aside, Sunday's legislative council elections were a bruising day for the champions of democracy in the former British colony and an extremely good day for the pro-China camp.

Despite a record turnout of 1.78 million – 55 per cent of Hong Kong's 3.2 million eligible voters – the landslide victory the pro-democracy camp hoped for after 500,000 people marched on July 1 demanding universal suffrage failed to materialize.

July 1 was the seventh anniversary of the handover of Hong Kong to mainland China. Hong Kong residents marked the occasion by taking to the streets to demonstrate for universal suffrage and greater democratization.

The pro-democracy camp won only 18 of the 30 directly-elected seats available and ended up with a total of 25 seats, only three more than they won in the last election in 2000 and well short of the majority they believed might just be possible.

Worse still, the Democratic Party saw its tally of seats fall from 12 to 9 as it was overtaken as the former British colony's biggest party by both the pro-Beijing Democratic Alliance and the pro-government Liberal Party.

It was supposed to be the day when the cry for electoral freedom Beijing has tried to stifle became a scream it could no longer ignore. Instead, it may turn out to be the day Hong Kong's fading dream of a democratic future finally died.

Before Sunday's election, Democratic Party leader Yeung Sum appealed to voters to treat it as a "referendum on democracy." If they listened, Hong Kong people responded by making it clear that, away from the mass protests, they are at best ambiguous over their desire for free elections.

After a tense campaign marked by allegations of dirty tricks and Beijing interference, the noises emanating from the pro-China camp after the votes were counted were congratulatory and almost purring in their tone.

"Hong Kong people have shown they are masters of their own house," China's Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office said in a statement.

Peter Wong, Hong Kong delegate to China's National People's Congress, said the results showed there should be no headlong rush for democracy.

"We have got to go through a process of learning what democracy is all about and what universal suffrage is all about," he said. "The general public in Hong Kong still hasn't got a full understanding of those two terms."

So what went wrong for the democrats? Why were they unable to translate the passion of the half million who marched on July 1 into a sweeping victory that might force China to sit up and take notice of what they insist is a clamor for universal suffrage?

Defeated pro-democracy candidate Cyd Ho blamed the system – a complex proportional representation system which critics say is designed to prevent any one party from gaining dominance.

Referring to her constituency she complained that while pro-democracy candidates gained 200,000 votes and the pro-government candidates only 140,000, because of the "so-called proportional representation system," six seats were split equally between them.

Others blamed China's alleged meddling in the run-up to the election, including the arrest in August of a Democratic Party candidate for hiring a prostitute in southern China.

Alex Ho was sentenced to six months' detention without trial, his humiliation complete when half-naked pictures of him were released by Chinese police three days before the election in which he remained a candidate.

The U.S.-based watchdog Human Rights Watch accused China of "aggressive interference" in Hong Kong affairs in the run-up to the election, accusing it of a "marriage of convenience" with triad gangsters who allegedly intimidated radio hosts airing anti-China views.

But many democrats, among them victorious candidate Lee Cheuk-yan, blamed their own shortcomings, saying they had not done enough to convince the voters of their case.

"The people who marched on July 1 were with us, but the lesson is that we still have to work hard to win the support of all the people of Hong Kong," he told IPS.

Lawrence Ho, who heads the think tank the Hong Kong Policy Research Institute, said he believed the pro-democracy camp may have taken the support of voters for granted after the euphoria of the July 1 march.

"What has been notable in this election is the sophistication of Hong Kong voters," he said in an interview. "They are choosing on the basis of quality of the candidate, not just their label."

Months of soul-searching lie ahead for the democrats. For Leung Kwok-hung, however, there are more pressing matters at hand – such as whether to breach the legislative council's strict dress code and wear his trademark Che Guevara T-shirt when he attends his first meeting.

"Why not?" remarks Leung, who has been arrested and jailed in the past for disrupting speeches in his new place of work. "Every legislator enjoys the right to freedom of expression, so they can't refuse to let me dress the way I want to."

(Inter Press Service)


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Simon Parry writes for IPS.

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