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China: Hong Kong Poll Boosts Democracy

  • Ben Partridge

London, 27 May 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The people of Hong Kong have voted overwhelmingly in favor of pro-democracy candidates in their first elections under Chinese communist rule, sending a clear signal to Beijing that they value their freedoms.

It was the first election to be held in Hong Kong since the British pulled out of the territory last July, handing it over to Chinese sovereignty after more than 150 years of colonial rule.

The results show that pro-democracy candidates secured almost two-thirds of the popular vote in the elections to the 60-seat Legislative Council -- or Hong Kong's ruling assembly. The main losers were pro-Beijing parties and the big business lobby.

Nearly 1.5 million people braved torrential rains to vote, giving a turnout of 53 percent, a record in the former British colony.

The Cantonese of Hong Kong, most from families who immigrated from the mainland, were denied a democratic vote in all but the last years of British rule, and the same is true under China.

In Sunday's ballot, voters were restricted to voting directly for only one-third of the Legislative Council seats. The other two-thirds will be filled by appointees chosen by an electoral college stacked with pro-Beijing loyalists, or by small groups of professionals.

Even though the vote was hardly fair, the choice of pro-democracy candidates sends a signal that Hong Kongers value their freedom, and want China to stand by the promises it has made.

Under the handover deal with Britain, Beijing promised Hong Kong a high degree of autonomy as a Special Administrative Region of China. It also pledged to let Hong Kong's 6.5m people keep their freewheeling capitalist way of life for 50 years under the "one country, two systems" formula devised by the late Deng Xiaoping.

In general, the fears that Beijing's takeover would lead to an immediate loss of civil liberties, the erosion of free speech and a censored media, have not materialized. But China has been criticized for replacing the elected legislature with an unelected body, and for limiting the voting franchises in Sunday's election.

A big winner in the vote was the Democrat Party headed by Martin Lee which took 13 seats against the main pro-China party's nine. Lee, a lawyer, is a stern critic of China's human rights record.

Lee was slated as a subversive by Beijing in the run-up to the British handover, raising fears that he might disappear into a mainland labor camp. But now he has returned to the legislature with a big mandate under Chinese election rules. He lost no time in returning to his cause -- the fight for full democracy in Hong Kong.

Lee said recently that the Asian financial crisis has exploded the myth of "Asian values" -- the idea that authoritarian rule brings the best government -- and showed that the region's democratic states were better able to cope with the economic shocks.

Lee won his Legislative Council seat with the support of more than 140,000 voters. In contrast, an insurance broker won his seat with just 94 votes from an unrepresentative professional group.

Such unfairness has angered Hong Kong's democrats and has prompted demands for all members to be directly elected in future. Former journalist Emily Lau, one of the biggest vote-winners, described the restricted ballot as "an absolute disgrace" which made Hong Kong "the laughing stock of the world."