Iron Lady and ex-security chief lead democracy fight

Click to follow

One woman is a widely respected former top government official known as the "Iron Lady" and "the conscience of Hong Kong". The other is an ex- security chief who made herself so unpopular that her effigy was dragged through the streets of the former colony in 2003, but who appears to have converted to democracy after a year at Princeton.

Both Anson Chan and Regina Ip are at the vanguard of vigorous debate over universal suffrage in Hong Kong, flying in the face of Beijing's insistence the territory should remain what it always terms "an economic city".

Ms Chan is a legend in Hong Kong politics, commanding enormous respect. When she stepped down as second-in-command in 2001, she won plaudits from everyone for her work as a civil servant and her commitment to the territory.

She maintained a dignified silence for four years until December, when she took part in a pro-democracy rally. This month she said Hong Kong needed the democratic reform it had been promised in the territory's mini-constitution, the Basic Law, and she would set up a new group to examine democratic issues.

Hong Kong was guaranteed a high level of autonomy after the return to Chinese rule back in 1997 under the Basic Law.

But the Communist Party is not too keen to see fully-fledged democracy on Chinese-run soil and Beijing has kept a tight grip on the territory's political development, ruling out direct elections in next year's vote for chief executive and for the legislative council (Legco) election in 2008.

There was speculation that Ms Chan would throw her name in the ring to become chief executive. "Wait and see," she said, while also acknowledging that anyone going for the post needed Beijing's backing.

"My purpose is to try to draw the different forces of the community together. We need to build up some trust," she said.

While her chances of becoming chief executive are viewed as slim, her supporters believe a good showing in the polls will help democracy in Hong Kong by forcing the chief executive, Donald Tsang to take a stand on universal suffrage.

As it stands, the chief executive is picked by a committee of 800 electors who largely back Beijing, while only half of Legco's 60 members are elected.

This suits the powerful business lobby, which holds sway in Hong Kong's famously free market territory, where even the top figure in government is known as a chief executive.

They like to complain that democracy is bad for trade or might anger the central leadership. But calls for more democracy are growing and polls show most Hong Kong residents favour universal suffrage. In recent years hundreds of thousands of Hong Kong people have taken to the streets to call for more democracy. The marches have embarrassed Beijing and forced the central government to replace the unpopular Tung Chee-Hwa with Mr Tsang.

Ms Ip's transformation has been staggering. The former hardliner stepped down as security chief nine days after the withdrawal of controversial security laws in 2003 and took herself out of the spotlight.

Now she has finished her political studies at Princeton and is back with a talk show - Regina Ip's Blog - and a new think-tank, the Savantas Policy Institute, for good measure. She talks of a need to build infrastructure, to have strong political parties and talented politicians to build a democracy. Will she stand in the 2008 legislative council election, form her own party or even go for chief executive in 2012? Tongues are wagging in Hong Kong.