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Wednesday, Aug. 9, 2006

Beijing loath to cast the fate of elections in Hong Kong to the wind


HONG KONG -- With Hong Kong having entered its 10th year as a Chinese special administrative region, pressure is building on Beijing to honor its promise of allowing full democratization of this former British colony. Opinion surveys consistently show that the majority of Hong Kong residents want to be able to elect both the chief executive and the entire legislature by universal suffrage.

In 2004, the Chinese government reneged on earlier promises to allow Hong Kong alone to decide when the entire legislature will be elected by universal suffrage. Moreover, it ruled out full democracy for elections in 2007-2008.

As a result, attention is now focused on 2012, when elections are scheduled both for the chief executive and for the Legislative Council. One problem is that the administration of Chief Executive Donald Tsang has toed the central government's line and insists that Beijing never agreed to allow Hong Kong on its own to decide when to adopt full democracy.

Moreover, legal scholars in Beijing who are believed to reflect the central government's views have raised additional obstacles by laying down preconditions to be met before full democracy, such as the need for patriotic education and the adoption of national security legislation.

Beijing wants to control the outcome of democratic elections before letting them proceed. This betrays gross ignorance of what democracy means.

Why is China opposed to democracy in Hong Kong? The reason appears to be twofold. On one hand, Beijing wants to be able to control events in Hong Kong, most particularly, to be able to decide who its leaders will be. A truly democratic system will make it difficult for Beijing to manipulate events and determine ahead of time who the winner of an election will be.

Another reason is the impact that democracy in Hong Kong will have on the mainland. If Hong Kong is allowed to elect its own chief executive, then cities such as Shanghai and Beijing may clamor for the same rights, making it even harder for the communist party to govern.

China's leaders must realize that Hong Kong and the mainland are at different points of economic and political development. While Beijing may be justified in saying the mainland is not ready for democracy, to say so of Hong Kong stretches credulity to the breaking point.

Pressure is also building up internationally, with the United States, the European Union and Britain all voicing criticism over China's refusal to agree to a timetable for universal suffrage. Last month, in its six-month report on Hong Kong, Britain deplored the fact that on the issue of constitutional reform there has been "little or no visible progress."

The Chinese Foreign Ministry rejected the criticism, asserting that "Hong Kong affairs are China's internal affairs" and foreign governments "shouldn't make irresponsible comments."

Beijing's attitude is in stark contrast with its attitude in 1984, when the Sino-British Joint Declaration on the future of Hong Kong was signed. Then, China lobbied Western countries to support the document, which was registered with the United Nations as an international treaty. That support gives the international community every right to insist that China carries out its pledges regarding a high degree of autonomy for Hong Kong, including full democracy.

Chief Executive Tsang has asked the Commission on Strategic Development, a high-level advisory body, to come up with a road map to universal suffrage.

According to Tsang, by early next year the commission's conclusions on a road map would be forwarded to Beijing and be made public in Hong Kong.

The commission itself is deeply divided, with conservative probusiness and pro-Beijing representatives pitted against prodemocratic members. Given the composition -- all members were appointed by the chief executive -- it may be difficult for the commission to reach agreement on an acceptable model.

Even if members should be able to reach a consensus, there is no guarantee that whatever is agreed upon would be accepted and acted upon by Beijing.

To salvage its credibility, Beijing should declare unambiguously that it will accept whatever consensus is achieved within Hong Kong on a road map. Moreover, Beijing should also declare that if the majority of Hong Kong residents wish to see universal suffrage in 2012, it would not object.

If Beijing again seeks to arbitrarily delay democracy for Hong Kong, it will be exposed as a government that does not honor its most solemn promises, and thus cannot be trusted, no matter how loudly it trumpets its intention to rise peacefully.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist.


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