Monday, September 6, 2004

HONG KONG — Passions rarely run high in this prosperous port city, where order and stability have been cherished for decades and where risk taking is not a virtue when it comes to politics.

But, as Hong Kong prepares to vote Sunday in legislative elections, a new spirit boldly defies that old stereotype.

“Everything today is being politicized, not unlike the United States, and you have a divided community,” said Frank Martin, president of the American Chamber of Commerce here.

“Previously, there was a fairly high level of political apathy in Hong Kong, and I don’t think that is true today,” he said.

Although political parties have existed in the former British colony for more than a decade, politics and governing interested few in earnest.

That changed last year, when the government of the Beijing-appointed chief executive, Tung Chee-hwa, introduced draconian national security legislation targeting treason, sedition and subversion against the Chinese government in Beijing.

Dissatisfaction with Mr. Tung’s policies had been simmering since the territory’s 1997 turnover from Britain.

Still, many gave Mr. Tung the benefit of the doubt, especially on the economy, which suffered because of external factors, such as the 1997 Asian financial crisis, the global economic turndown and the outbreak of the deadly severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) last year.

“Over the past seven years, we’ve had a whole litany of blunders,” said Christine Loh, chief executive officer of Civic Exchange, a nonpartisan think tank.

“This particular government seems to have a very weak intellectual basis,” she said. “It can’t really articulate its political philosophy, and it can’t put philosophy and policy together, so it’s a big mess.”

But nothing prepared the government for the emotional reaction to the national security legislation, known as Article 23 of the Basic Law.

Public dissatisfaction culminated with an unprecedented protest of 500,000 people, who marched peacefully in Victoria Park on July 1, 2003.

Negative reaction on the law had been pouring in from almost all parts of society, including powerful business interests that generally had been supportive of Mr. Tung’s government.

“Last year, the government came out with a draft of Article 23, and it was terrible, really badly written,” said David O’Rear, chief economist of the Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce.

“So we had our legal committee analyze and compare it to other laws around the world, and it said it was ridiculous,” he said.

Article 23 was never put to a vote, after the Liberal Party, which is part of the pro-government coalition in the Legislative Council, withdrew support for the law.

Another march with even more people took place this July 1. This time, public anger focused on an April ruling of the Standing Committee of China’s National People’s Congress that postponed until after 2007 any direct election of Hong Kong’s chief executive as well as the entire 60-member Legislative Council.

Half a loaf

Nevertheless, the Sunday election for the Legislative Council will be the most democratic Hong Kong has had.

Half of the council’s seats will be filled with representatives chosen by popular vote in the territory’s geographical constituencies.

Previously, 24 seats were elected directly.

All major political parties, even those supportive of Beijing, agree that the territory should strive to become a full democracy, with every seat plus the chief executive chosen by popular vote. They differ only on the timing.

“Our challenge is to move ahead with developing the democratic system at a pace this community feels comfortable with,” said Stephen Lam, the territory’s constitutional affairs secretary.

“The debate is about speed and form,” he said. “Democracy is important, but there are other elements that are equally precious to the people of Hong Kong: rule of law, freedom and participation by different sectors of the community.”

Ma Lik, chairman of the pro-government and pro-Beijing Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong, put it much more bluntly.

“The people of Hong Kong want stability and prosperity first — I’m sorry, not democracy,” he said.

But Miss Loh of Civic Exchange said people would be quite happy to have “universal suffrage” in 2007, using a term that in Hong Kong means direct elections for all lawmakers.

But she also said that people in Hong Kong understand that China is not ready for too much democracy too soon. “The question is: Is Beijing ready for any corner of their country, Taiwan excluded, to have free and fair elections?”

In addition to the 30 members chosen by popular vote, the remaining 30 members of the legislature will be chosen by so-called functional constituencies, a term used to describe professional groups and trade associations.

Pro-democracy activists complain that the system is unbalanced, because although 3.2 million voters will choose 30 lawmakers, fewer than 200,000 people in the functional constituencies will choose the other 30 members.

The government and its supporters say they are satisfied with the direct election of just half of the council.

“According to the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s electoral system should move ahead according to the principle of gradual and orderly progress and the actual situation,” Mr. Lam said.

Fear of chaos

No one here doubts that the stakes are high. Beijing considers the territory a jewel and fears that political instability might jeopardize its economic achievements.

“To Beijing, the continued success of Hong Kong is very important. It’s part of the national pride, and in the last few years, the systems here have been maintained very effectively,” Mr. Lam said.

With the elections drawing closer, China has waged a charm offensive aimed at boosting support in Hong Kong for the mainland.

On Thursday, it called for a new era of cooperation with the territory and invited businesses there to take part in major projects for the 2008 Olympics in the Chinese capital.

“Beijing’s 2008 Olympics brings enormous economic potential not only for Beijing, but Hong Kong, all of China and the rest of the world,” said Gao Siren, director of Beijing’s Central Liaison Office (CLO) in Hong Kong.

Less than a week earlier, China and Hong Kong expanded their free-trade pact, with a deal to let Hong Kong companies enter a variety of businesses, from oil product sales to moviemaking and media marketing. Beijing also agreed to eliminate tariffs on hundreds of Hong Kong goods.

According to the Basic Law, any changes to Hong Kong’s electoral system can occur only with a two-thirds majority in the Legislative Council, the consent of the chief executive and approval from the Standing Committee of China’s National People’s Congress.

“If we wish to appoint someone without consultation with China, and China says no, that would be a major constitutional crisis,” said Jacqueline Ann Willis, Hong Kong’s high commissioner in Washington.

“People don’t want to provoke China in a way that it feels it has to act,” she said. “Give us space, we’ll find our way. Don’t be judgmental.”

Pro-democracy activists, however, detect more than just concern about Hong Kong’s continued success behind Beijing’s attempts to restrict democratic participation. They say China is trying to exercise its repressive hand in the territory, as it does on the mainland.

Campaigning, Western style

Campaigning in the weeks leading up to the legislative elections became so fierce and at times nasty that some compared it to U.S. presidential politics.

For the most part, the pro-China forces have been more aggressive than the pro-democracy camp, largely because of polls giving the democrats a substantial lead.

After incidents involving three of their candidates, the democrats accused China of orchestrating a “dirty tricks” campaign to smear them before the election.

Late last month, a Democratic Party stalwart, Law Chi-kwong, was refused entry to the mainland in Shanghai, where the authorities confiscated the travel permit he had been granted in Hong Kong.

The CLO last week attributed the incident to “communication” breakdown.

Also last month, another Democratic Party candidate, Ho Wai-to, was arrested in Dongguan city in southern China after police said they found him with a prostitute in a hotel room during an anti-vice sweep.

He was detained without trial for six months for re-education. He has denied the charges.

The Hong Kong government said the detention “does not amount to imprisonment,” which would have disqualified Mr. Ho from running in the election.

Earlier, a third member of the Democratic Party became involved in a scandal when a local Chinese newspaper said he had used an illegal printer to produce election material.

The party’s campaign manager and one of its most charismatic senior members, Fred Li, said the printer was registered.

“This is just part of a huge dirty tricks campaign against Democrats,” he said. “China wants to harm the name of the Democrats, and it is the only organization big enough to orchestrate something so large.”

The business class

Hong Kong’s business community traditionally has been involved in almost all aspects of the territory’s affairs, including governance. It is consulted regularly by the local government on major policy decisions, often before they become public.

Rich investors and business executives frequently are accused by pro-democracy activists of supporting the government out of fear that political instability would be bad for their business.

Many of them do not bother to hide their support.

“We tend to support the government, because it’s pro-business. If we don’t, we do it quietly. If we were publicly denouncing the government, we wouldn’t have much influence,” said Mr. O’Rear of the Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce.

“Our position [on full democratic elections] is that the date is not important,” he said. “What is important is that we do it right.”

Mr. Martin, of the American Chamber of Commerce, prefers not to take sides, at least publicly.

“There is a view in the business community that, if you immediately hold elections by universal suffrage, you’d end up with a welfare society — 62 percent here live in government-subsidized housing — and that candidates will appeal to voters by making promises that would not necessarily be in the interest of property developers and others,” he said.

Mr. Martin also said that Hong Kong’s institutions have not weakened under Chinese rule.

“Our surveys indicate that there continues to be a high level of confidence in the legal system and the independence of the judiciary,” he said.

But he noted recent cases of reported harassment of two radio talk-show hosts, who accused the government of pressure and violating their freedom of speech.

“Two of our core values are transparent and free flow of information,” Mr. Martin said. “That sets Hong Kong apart from many other places in Asia. I don’t think it’s in danger at this point, but it bears watching. One of the concerns is self-censorship, which is very likely.”

Improved outlook

Economically, Hong Kong has been through a rough period since its turnover to China in 1997, but analysts are reluctant to blame its government.

“Hong Kong’s economy is externally oriented, and what happens around us has an impact on us,” said Elley Mao, acting government economist.

The economy grew 12.1 percent in the second quarter of this year, exceeding expectations and prompting the government to raise its forecast for 2004 to 7.5 percent from its 6 percent projection in May.

Mike Rowse, director-general of Invest Hong Kong, a government agency established in 2000 to promote foreign investment in the territory, said the outlook is promising.

“The figures appear to indicate that there isn’t reluctance to come here at all,” he said. “During SARS, we didn’t lose a single project. What happened was companies delayed completion of projects.”

According to Mr. Rowse’s agency, foreign direct investment in Hong Kong increased to $13.5 billion last year from $9.7 billion in 2002, although it is still much lower than the $61.9 billion in 2000.

“As China gradually opened up, we lost our monopoly” in the region, Mr. Rowse said, adding that “many inland companies use Hong Kong as a springboard out.”

For those looking for a way into China, he said: “There is no Chinese city where the politics is better than in Hong Kong, so it’s the perfect place.”

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