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China's special brand of streamlined democracy

If China is going to get serious about flaunting the benefits of Hong Kong's new-style democracy, it will require more than a returning officer flashing open a ballot box to show that it was empty before voting began.

The proud display came yesterday in the border town of Shenzhen, where members of Hong Kong's Provisional Legislature assembled for the first time. In July it will replace the existing legislature, which contains too many independent thinkers for China's liking.

The first task was to elect a president. Lu Ping, the Chinese official responsible for Hong Kong affairs in Peking, solemnly asked for suggestions as to how they should go about this task. Several were made, and quickly brushed aside by Mr Lu, who called on the members to endorse a plan already drawn up. The members dutifully clapped.

They were then asked to nominate candidates. A 15-minute recess was held and two candidates emerged: Andrew Wong, who chairs the existing legislature, and has been criticised for wanting to chair the rival body as well; and Rita Fan, a former member of the Governor's cabinet who has become a highly vocal supporter of the Chinese government.

Within minutes, printed forms bearing the names of the candidates were produced. Either China has the fastest printing presses in the world or the spontaneity of the process was in question.

Mrs Fan won the vote, and bowed modestly. She is well remembered in Hong Kong for building her political career as the advocate of a ruthless line on Vietnamese boat people. She went on to work for the Emperor Group, one of the colony's most controversial companies, run by Albert Yeung, a man who only escaped adding to his criminal record thanks to the mass amnesia of witnesses in a recent trial.

The Governor, Chris Patten, has dismissed the Provisional Legislature as a "rather exotic debating society" with no legal standing in Hong Kong, which is why it has been forced to meet in Shenzhen. But Chinese officials and Tung Chee-hwa, who will take over from Mr Patten, insisted that not only was it legal but that Britain's stubborn insistence on changing laws without Chinese approval had made it necessary to establish the body and fill "the legal vacuum". It will prepare a raft of legislation on nationality issues, finances and other matters to be enacted when China takes control on 1 July.

Meeting in the marble-encrusted Shenzhen Guest House, the members were shielded from the press and public. Such was Chinese anxiety to avoid untoward interventions that it was considered worth sacrificing any appearance of open government.