Democracy creeping

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As Hong Kong marks its first decade under Chinese rule today, dark predictions of a communist takeover that clouded the 1997 handover ceremonieshave largely vanished.

Progress toward full democracy remains painfully slow. But the gem-like city — with its breathtaking reflection in a spectacular harbor — continues to glow as it did in the days of British rule.

Hong Kong’s economy expands year after year. Its jails hold criminals, not political dissidents. Its dissidents, many of whom would face certain arrest if they set foot on the Chinese mainland, still openly criticize Beijing.

People don’t directly choose their leader, known as the chief executive, andtiny steps toward one-person, one-vote elections belie the expectations of disappointed democrats.

But even the harshest critics of Chinese rule would grudgingly concede that the first decade of Chinese rule could have been much worse.

Expressing a more mainstream view, David Dodwell, chief executive of Strategic Access, a prominent public-policy research firm, said: “China has allowed Hong Kong to be Hong Kong. Beijing has delivered on what it said it would do in the runup to 1997.”

Similar viewpoints, albeit with varying degrees of caveats, were reflected in interviews with dozens of politicians, economists, business executives and people on the streets in Hong Kong.

Donald Tsang began his second term as chief executive today, his swearing-in a key part of ceremonies to usher in the second decade under Chinese rule for the city of 7 million.

“If Donald can bring democracy to Hong Kong and clean up the air, he’ll be remembered as a great chief executive,” Mr. Dodwell said.

Mr. Tsang, a lifelong civil servant, had no apparent reason to display emotion when he was declared the winner of Hong Kong’s election for chief executive three months ago. He had secured the votes of more than 600 of a 795-member Election Committee stacked with electors loyal to Beijing.

It was no secret that he was Beijing’s choice.

But there he was onstage, his jaw trembling and his eyes welling up, as his name was solemnly announced and TV cameras zoomed in.

Because there was no popular vote and only members of the elite Election Committee could cast ballots, a visitor to Hong Kong at the time was hard-pressed to notice that an election was being held.

Mr. Tsang had an opponent in the election — a first for Hong Kong. It followed a public campaign featuring many trappings of a Western-style horse race, including televised debates between Mr. Tsang and the other candidate, Alan Leong.

To get on the ballot, Mr. Leong had to convince at least 100 members of the Election Committee to sign a petition nominating him.

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