Patten derides Hong Kong vote as `farce'

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The Independent Online
It was billed as an election, but for the 399 voters taking part it looked more like picking dishes from a Chinese restaurant menu.

Voting forms, contained in bright-red covers remarkably like the menus in Hong Kong's cheap and cheerful eating establishments, were solemly dished out to a Chinese-appointed selection committee yesterday. Their task was to select members for a new Hong Kong legislature to rival the existing Legislative Council, which will be scrapped when British rule ends in July. "Maybe it's not very democratic in the Western sense," said Lau Sui-kai, the chief election officer, "but it's practical in the Hong Kong situation".

In an interview with The Independent on Sunday, the Governor, Chris Patten, said he had worked out that just 0.015 per cent of the people entitled to vote in the 1995 elections were given a vote at yesterday's selection session. As the members of the committee gathered in the Chinese border town of Shenzhen, he described theprocess as a "bizarre farce".

Inside the unprepossessing Hall of Shenzhen, a blaze of crimson from carpets, curtains and everything else, the process appeared more like synchronised swimming - even the applause had been practised. Dressed in their best, Hong Kong's richest men and women, interspersed with old- time left-wingers, frowned their way through the list of 130 candidates, careful not to select more than 12 holding foreign passports (marked neatly with an asterisk) to avoid having their ballot disqualified. About 3 per cent failed this simple intelligence test, but were spared the embarrassment of being named.

As for the rest, they did almost exactly what they were expected to do by ensuring that 33 members of the rival legislature will be drawn from the existing Legislative Council.

Six "acceptable" democrats were installed to show how tolerant the selectors could be of opposition voices, while eight candidates who failed to gain election in 1995 succeeded in this less demanding poll. The new council will even have one British member: Elsie Tu, the 83-year-old politician who has become a bitter enemy of the Governor.

But to ensure that the new legislature will not be troublesome, the majority of its members are drawn from pro-Peking parties. This contrasts with the structure of the current legislature, where the majority of members were elected on pro-democracy platforms. The stage is now set for the 60 members of the new body to return to Shenzhen for weekly meetings until July, when they can hold their proceedings in Hong Kong without the threat of a court challenge to their legal status or demonstrations by democracy supporters, who turned out again yesterday.

Shenzhen is hardly an ideal venue. It is a typical frontier town whose gleaming skyscrapers fail to conceal its Wild West tendencies. The city hailed by China's paramount leader, Deng Xiaoping, as an example of economic development, also seems to be an example of uninhibited prostitution and drug dealing.

Yesterday, China's Vice-Premier Qian Qichen blamed Britain for forcing China to hold meetings in Shenzhen, because of its refusal to recognise the provisional legislature. He said that Britain's unwillingness to recognise reality was a sign of "helplessness" and did not bother to respond to the British challenge, issued on Friday, to take the issue of the rival legislature's legality to international arbitration.