Hong Kong to elect leader as pressure grows for direct vote

By James Pomfret HONG KONG, Reuters

Hong Kong will hold its first contested leadership election on Sunday, nearly 10 years after Britain handed it back to Chinese rule, with diehard liberals bemoaning the lack of democracy.

Since 1997, Hong Kong’s strengths are still largely intact — a booming economy, relatively free media, rule of law, clean government, and half its legislature directly elected.

But Beijing’s constant political muscle-flexing in the city — namely a precedent-setting decision in 2004 to deny Hong Kong people the right to directly elect their leader in Sunday’s poll — rankles the likes of former Democratic Party chairman Martin Lee.

“It was our darkest hour,” said Lee, who in the heady days leading up to the July 1, 1997, handover, was depicted as a defender of Hong Kong’s freedoms against China’s communist rulers — who many still remembered for sending troops and tanks into Tiananmen Square in 1989.

Lee dismissed any notion of democratic gains since 1997.

Hong Kong’s next Chief Executive will be chosen this Sunday by a largely pro-Beijing 795-member electoral college, described by the democrats as an illegitimate grouping.

Incumbent Donald Tsang is almost certain to win, but he faces a challenge from pro-democracy lawmaker Alan Leong, who surprised many by even getting on the ballot given electoral rules stacked in China’s favour.

While the public’s lack of a direct say in the poll has meant a degree of indifference, the high-profile candidacy of Leong and two televised election debates have raised public awareness.

“The public’s not really that concerned about the election because they know who’s going to win,” said secretary Carol Wong, 29.

“But I think the debates were entertaining and it’s been like a show.”

Jasper Tsang Yok-sing, a former chairman of the pro-Beijing Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, says even the worst pessimists can’t deny there’s been some advances in Hong Kong over the past decade.

But Tsang also points to deep flaws and tensions in the city’s unprecedented one-country, two-systems constitutional framework as conceived by the late supreme leader Deng Xiaoping.

“Usually it’s a one dimensional positioning. You’re either left or you’re right (politically). But in Hong Kong there’s another dimension, your relationship with Beijing,” said Tsang.

“The Beijing axis is always the dominating one. It dominates the political topography. I don’t think we can really embark on a normal course of political development until we dissolve this contradiction, this problem. We have to untie this knot,” said the Tsang.

He advocates direct elections as one way of easing existing tensions between the executive and legislative branches of government by allowing a ruling party to come to power.

“China and democracy are not incompatible,” he added.

Anthony Cheung, a Democratic Party founding member and political scientist who became the first moderate democratic figure to be appointed to Hong Kong’s advisory cabinet, or Executive Council, is optimistic about political reform.

“The central government officials have taken a less dogmatic view about universal suffrage than before,” said Cheung.

A mass protest on July 1, 2003, involving half a million people protesting against the then deeply unpopular Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa — was a watershed moment, Cheung said in forcing Beijing to wake up to Hong Kong’s democratic aspirations.

The pan-democratic camp has called for direct elections by 2012, a timeframe Cheung said should be feasible if a proper nominating framework were sorted out with Beijing’s consent.

For the man on the street, there is a growing expectation for some constitutional breakthrough in the next five years.

“I felt angry that the government and China were telling us lies all the time,” said Paul Ho, a lifeguard who attended the mass summer rally almost four years ago: “I think there was a big change. China realized that in Hong Kong there was a breaking point which they shouldn’t cross in future.”