Sunday, March 25, 2007

HONG KONG — Donald Tsang was comfortably re-elected as Hong Kong’s chief executive yesterday, days after dismissing advice from Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that he use Afghanistan as a model for democratizing the Chinese autonomous territory.

Mr. Tsang, who was given a five-year term by a 795-member committee representing various professional groups, said the former British colony’s first contested election for chief executive had “laid out a solid foundation for moving toward” direct elections in the future.

Even though he promised to resolve the issue — known as universal suffrage here — before he leaves office, Mr. Tsang refused to commit to a popular election for his successor in 2012. Any changes to Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, knows as the Basic Law, have to be approved by Beijing.

Mr. Tsang complained on Friday that he has had a hard time convincing the Bush administration that the lack of democracy is not hurting Hong Kong’s free economy, independent judiciary and respect for human rights.

He recalled a meeting with Miss Rice during his October 2005 visit to Washington, in which he argued that “a sophisticated community like Hong Kong” can thrive even before achieving full democracy, but the secretary remained unconvinced.

“In fact, she said Afghanistan was a much better example for us to follow,” Mr. Tsang said derisively in an interview with five foreign reporters, adding that Miss Rice “is a very nice lady and very erudite.”

Miss Rice often cites Afghanistan as an example of how a poor and unstable country can have an elected government, but usually when addressing leaders of other problem-ridden states. Hong Kong, which was returned to Chinese sovereignty in 1997, has one of the world’s most dynamic economies and some of its highest living standards.

Still, opinion polls show that more than 60 percent of the people want universal suffrage, and Mr. Tsang’s challenger, Alan Leong, said that the secret-ballot election yesterday “tested the limits of political openness in China.”

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

Two years ago, when Mr. Tsang ran to succeed Hong Kong’s first post-1997 chief executive, Tung Chee-hwa, he was nominated by 710 Election Committee members and was automatically declared the winner.

Mr. Tung, Beijing’s hand-picked candidate, was elected by a similar committee after the 1997 transfer but did not finish his second term, citing health reasons. Mr. Tsang, a Catholic, has been a civil servant for four decades.

In a dozen interviews in the past several days, politicians, business people and analysts here said the most significant consequence of the election campaign is that it prompted public discussion of Hong Kong’s most acute problems, such as a widening gap between the rich and poor, education and the polluted air.

“The low-income members of our community don’t feel that they have a fair share of the fruits of our economic development,” said Paul Chan, an Election Committee member representing the accounting profession.

“Even though the Hong Kong government spends more on education than on anything else, the quality of the output is not satisfactory,” he said.

Mr. Leong said Mr. Tsang “will be vigilantly monitored” on how he fulfills the promises he made during the campaign — another first for Hong Kong.

“No one can even think of running for chief executive unchallenged ever again,” he said.

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