Hong Kong backs democracy plan

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The Independent Online
AFTER an 18-hour debate in Hong Kong's parliament, controversial proposals from the Governor, Chris Patten, to increase democracy in the colony were finally voted through early this morning. Earlier, Mr Patten had narrowly escaped defeat by a rival package backed by pro-Peking legislators.

The most tense moment came after nearly 12 hours of often emotional speeches by legislators. There was a gasp in the Legislative Council (Legco) as the electronic scoreboard showed that Mr Patten's supporters had defeated a greatly watered-down alternative package put forward by the pro-business Liberal Party by just 29 votes to 28. Two legislators abstained.

If the Liberal amendment - aimed at pacifying China - had been carried, this would have spelled humiliation for Mr Patten, and undermined the last three years of his governorship before Hong Kong's sovereignty reverts to China in June 1997.

Mr Patten's original proposals were finally passed at 2.45am local time by 32 votes to 24. In a statement, the Governor said the vote 'ends an important chapter. We must now turn the page.'

The pro-democracy faction nearly had the last word however. As dawn broke, constitutional chaos was narrowly avoided when a separate bill - which went much further than the Patten package by calling for a fully democratic Legco - failed by 20 votes to 21.

The Legco debate set the seal on a 21-month diplomatic row between Britain and China over the pace of democratic reform in Hong Kong. China has said it will scrap whatever electoral system emerges, but it was keen to see Mr Patten humiliated by a defeat in Legco. Over the past few days, Mr Patten and Chinese officials had lobbied furiously.

Mr Patten's package was saved from defeat only by the abstentions of two Legco members, Martin Barrow and Simon Ip. Until Tuesday, Mr Barrow, a senior executive at the Jardine Matheson group, the colony's so- called 'Princely Hong', which has close ties with the Conservative Party, had been planning to back the Liberals. Last night, explaining his decision to abstain, Mr Barrow said: 'I did have a moral dilemma of what to do.' He said that after 'a lot of thinking. . . it was my conclusion that the scales should be tipped by people whose home has been and will be Hong Kong for generations to come.'

Over the next few days, Mr Patten will have to assess the consequences of the narrow margin of his victory. Jimmy McGregor, a Legco member and Patten supporter, last night branded the defeat of the Liberal amendment as a 'Pyrrhic victory' because of its short shelf-life.

The 60-seat Legco elected next year will have only 20 directly elected members. A further 30 will emerge from anachronistic and limited constituencies based on trades and professions. Under Mr Patten's plan the total franchise for these functional constituencies will include all Hong Kong's 2.7 million workers.