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Saturday, Sept. 11, 2004

China takes no chances in Hong Kong poll

Special to The Japan Times

HONG KONG -- It is now clear that China is quietly tearing up the fine promises it made in 1984 that Hong Kong would be permitted a high degree of autonomy when China resumed sovereignty over the city after 150 years of British colonial rule. Beijing is going to great lengths to ensure that prodemocracy politicians do not get a majority in the Sept. 12 elections.

Human Rights Watch on Sept. 9 claimed that China had created a "toxic political climate" in Hong Kong by using threats and intimidation to persuade people to vote for pro-Beijing candidates in the elections. It said the Hong Kong government was not responsible, but had not acted to prevent mainland intimidation.

With the tacit help of Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa, a former shipping line executive, whose family firm had to be bailed out by China during colonial days, Beijing is using what it hopes is a potent mixture of weapons. Earlier this year it laid down the law that it is in charge by amending Hong Kong's mini-constitution and ruling out one-person, one-vote democracy in the 2007 and 2008 elections for chief executive and the legislative council, respectively, dashing hopes that Hong Kong might be allowed to make its own case for democracy.

China has also offered a series of sweeteners of privileged treatment for the Hong Kong economy that was hit by a downturn and SARS. These included abolishing the group visa system for much of China and thus allowing individual rich Chinese tourists to visit and buy Hong Kong property as well as consumer goodies.

It has played the patriotic card by sending over its first astronaut and this week its Olympic champions as the election campaign enters its final days. It has hinted that Hong Kong may be permitted to host some of the events for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. It has cajoled rich Hong Kong tycoons with strong interests on the mainland not to advertise in newspapers that support the democrats.

China has orchestrated a dirty-tricks effort to try to catch Hong Kong's democratic politicians. One candidate was allegedly caught visiting a prostitute on the mainland. This is by all accounts a favorite pastime of many Hong Kong executives visiting China, but they are rarely apprehended; if they are, they are let off with a fine or a short spell in prison. The hapless democrat who fell into the baited honey trap was sentenced to six months "re-education," enough to keep him from the elections, as well as giving lots of shaming publicity for his party. Some legal experts claimed that as a Hong Kong resident, he should not have been subjected to the mainland administrative justice system, under which there is no trial or legal representation for the defendant.

On cue this week, the Chinese authorities held a press conference about the democrat. Hong Kong media thought it might be to release him early, but instead the police released pictures of the man half naked and lurid details of what they said he had been doing, detailing three visits to prostitutes since 2001.

In other incidents, the home of outspoken legislative counselor Emily Lau, convenor of The Frontier political group, was broken into. She fears the purpose was to plant bugs and check personal papers. Leading figures have been given advice on who to vote for. Some leaders were told to take their mobile telephones into the voting booths to take pictures to show their vote, but the election body has banned mobile phones from the booths.

The so-called pro-Beijing parties in Hong Kong have complained that the democratic parties have been digging the dirt on them too -- but their complaints relate to publicity about their voting records in the legislative council, which is surely legitimate political activity.

Hong Kong's electoral system itself has been neatly set up to make it hard for any party or group to get a majority even within a body that has few powers. The legislative council passes laws, but cannot initiate legislation, because China has insisted on an executive-led government.

Elections for all 60 seats on the council will be held on Sunday, but only half will be chosen by adult suffrage of the 3.2 million registered voters. Even here the system is not a straightforward one of one member per constituency. The five geographical constituencies have between four and eight seats whose members are chosen by a proportional-representation list system.

The other 30 seats are given to "functional constituencies," similar to the corrupt British boroughs abolished by the 1832 reform act. Altogether there are only 199,539 registered electors for these constituencies, such as labor, finance, textiles and garments, tourism, education, and even catering.

The commercial constituency, which has more than 800,000 employees, has only 1,835 voters because of the way votes are allocated. The Heung Yee Kuk represents 700,000 people in the New Territories, but has only 149 voters. Among the voters for the functional constituencies are the "Fish Farming and Stuff Association" and the "Hong Kong Children's Choir." Eleven of the functional members have won their seats unopposed.

It is worth noting that China already exercises a heavier hand in ruling Hong Kong than former colonial power Britain did. Chief Executive Tung is a much more pliant figure to Beijing than postwar British governors, who took delight in boasting that Hong Kong was more efficient and better-run than Britain itself, who deeply resented being given instructions by London on policy.

At the same time, Tung distrusts the civil service, and rules through a close coterie of trusted friends -- which has both enhanced his unpopularity and helped to ensure that he has devised a succession of policies that are badly thought out, and turn out to be both unpopular and sometimes impractical.

What makes this arrangement more weird than wonderful is that Hong Kong is in most aspects, except its domination by rich tycoons, a grown-up society. In terms of population, many smaller places have seats at the United Nations. In terms of annual income of $25,000 a year, Hong Kong is among the 20 richest places.

But instead of taking the lesson of trusting the Hong Kong people to be adult enough to govern themselves and revising the executive-led governmental system, Beijing is preparing to try to set up a new political party, the All People's Party. It is led by a ex-Red Guard who first became a bureaucrat in China, then a real-estate developer and businessman in Hong Kong. Pro-China figures say that if the democrats look like getting a majority on the legislative council, then the powers of the council will be further limited by not allowing members to propose amendments to legislation, thus turning it into a mere rubber stamp for the chief executive.

It makes for an interesting election, but potentially dangerous. If Hong Kong people want to do things their way, Beijing will squeeze harder. But ultimately China is hurting itself by not trusting Hong Kong and the immense energies and entrepreneurial spirit of local people who have turned a barren rock into a flourishing international city.

Kevin Rafferty, a former managing editor of the World Bank, is author of "City on the Rocks, Hong Kong's Uncertain Future" (Viking Press, 1990).

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