- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 1, 2007

As Hong Kong marks its first decade under Chinese rule today, dark predictions of a communist takeover that clouded the 1997 handover ceremonies have 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, and tiny 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.

Losing to win

Mr. Leong considers his mere presence on the ballot a victory.

“We lost in order to win,” he told The Washington Times. “Even though I didn’t have the votes to win this time, I paved the way to winning next time. This campaign set a minimum standard for future candidates. Politics is now a household subject.”

In 1984, the people of Hong Kong had no say when then-British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and her Chinese counterpart signed an agreement in Beijing that sealed the British colony’s fate.

Thirteen years later, on schedule, Hong Kong became part of China.

Beijing pledged to preserve Hong Kong’s economic, social and judicial systems and not to interfere in the city’s day-to-day affairs. It also promised democratic development but offered no timeline or a clear commitment to full democracy.

Mr. Tsang has vowed to “resolve” the issue of direct elections by all citizens — “universal suffrage,” as it is known in Hong Kong — before he leaves office in five years.

He has other issues to address as well.

Although magnificent skyscrapers, abundant wealth and Western glamour mixed with Asian culture have formed outside perceptions of Hong Kong for decades, the city’s social problems have become more acute in recent years.

Many cite a widening gap between rich and poor, the declining quality of education, slipping health-care availability and pollution as issues requiring immediate attention.

Democracy debate

A decade ago, Beijing committed to a formula known as “one country, two systems” for the next half-century.

The Heritage Foundation, a leading conservative think tank in Washington, continues to list it as the world’s “freest economy.”

The judicial process and the press remain independent of government control, although some say there have been attempts by Beijing to interfere on several occasions.

Technically, because of the way the Basic Law, the city’s mini-constitution, was written, China has not broken a pledge to allow direct elections and other democratic freedoms.

But democracy advocates in Hong Kong and beyond say it is high time for China to speed up electoral reforms.

“Democratic development in Hong Kong has been blocked by Beijing,” Chris Patten, the city’s last British governor wrote in a recent article. “That it will have a mature democracy sooner rather than later is beyond doubt.”

Currently, only half of the 60-member Legislative Council is directly elected. The rest, like the chief executive, are chosen by a committee that is partly elected by professional groups and partly appointed.

Western governments, especially the United States and European Union, reject the argument by defenders of the status quo that Hong Kong is not ready for full democracy.

As the anniversary approached today, they renewed calls for change.

The EU said in an annual report on the territory that full democracy is “the best means of creating legitimate, stable, accountable and transparent government, protecting rights and freedoms, and upholding the rule of law.”

The main reason Beijing supporters often cite for delaying direct elections is the fear of “chaos.” During the Chinese mainland’s rapid and sometimes painful transformation, Hong Kong’s stability is paramount, they say.

Pro-democracy activists are scheduled to march today to demand universal suffrage.

The annual demonstrations began in 2003, when more than a half-million people, or nearly 10 percent of Hong Kong’s population, flooded the streets to protest a proposed national security law backed by Beijing.

The legislation, which targeted treason, sedition and subversion against the Chinese government, was withdrawn as a result.

>No turning back

Mr. Tsang, who has said universal suffrage will happen at some point, told a small group of foreign reporters that his March election “laid out a solid foundation for moving toward” direct elections in the future.

But last month, Wu Bangguo, chairman of the National People’s Congress in Beijing, suggested China will not allow full democracy anytime soon, saying the democratic process has to be gradual and Hong Kong should not copy Western models.

Opinion polls show more than 60 percent of the people in Hong Kong want universal suffrage.

In 2005, Mr. Tsang succeeded the city’s first chief executive, Tung Chee-hwa, who had been appointed by Beijing. Mr. Tsang ran unopposed because he managed to secure backing from most Election Committee members.

Allen Lee, one of Mr. Tsang’s supporters on the committee, said the election this year “changed the political dynamic and sent a clear message to Beijing that the people in Hong Kong want to see a contest.”

Even Ma Lik, chairman of the pro-Beijing Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong and another supporter of Mr. Tsang, said Mr. Leong was a “good challenger.”

Out of 772 valid ballots, Mr. Tsang received 649 and Mr. Leong, 123. Both the election and the campaign, which featured two unprecedented TV debates between the two candidates, were a novelty for the territory.

It was also the first time the committee cast its votes by secret ballot. It “tested the limits of political openness in China,” Mr. Leong said.

His debates with Mr. Tsang were watched by millions of mainland Chinese across the border.

The vision thing

Mr. Tsang “will be vigilantly monitored” on how he fulfills the promises he made during the campaign — another first for Hong Kong, Mr. Leong said. “No one can even think of running for chief executive unchallenged ever again.”

Mr. Tsang’s supporters point out his four decades of experience as a civil servant and add that, for the most part, things in Hong Kong run smoothly and effectively. He also seems to strike a relatively good balance between the city’s interests and those of the Chinese government, they say.

But his critics argue that, while he is a good executor of policy, he lacks vision and a big-picture thinking ability. They also say he is reluctant to change his mind on an issue, once it has been made up.

“What we need is true leadership,” said Gladys Li, one of the Election Committee members who backed Mr. Leong. “The [Hong Kong] government lacks the political will to do anything on many vital issues.”

Christine Loh, executive director of the nongovernmental group Civic Exchange, noted that Mr. Tsang said in his election platform he wanted officials to be “interest coordinators” more than “policy formulators.”

“He is hampered by a policy-capacity deficiency, which makes it hard for him to identify what are the right things to do in the first place,” she said. “The result is many government policies will be challenged by civil society. Ministers and officials will continue to feel they are under siege.”

Mr. Tsang rejected the criticism, saying he has specific ideas how to turn Hong Kong into a “more open, civilized and economically robust” city.

He bristled at suggestions that Shanghai could soon rival Hong Kong as the world’s top Chinese commercial hub, and he insisted that would never happen.

“No politician is called a visionary while alive,” he said. “Why should I aspire to that?”

Nicholas Kralev reported for this article from Hong Kong during the week of the chief executive election in March. He was one of several foreign journalists on a government-sponsored visit to observe the voting.

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