Credibility gap for China's puppets

Hand-picked group choose pro-Peking stalwarts for council, writes Stephen Vines
Shenzhen - The normally unassuming left-wing trade union leader, Tam Yiu-chung, grinned broadly and waved two outstretched arms to celebrate his victory. Having been defeated by a wider electorate last year, he topped the poll of 399 hand picked "electors", approved by China to select the members of a Provisional Legislature in Hong Kong to rival the existing body. The trouble with the existing body, as far as China is concerned, is that too many people were allowed to vote.

Yesterday, the victors and the defeated were contemplating a result hailed in China's official media as guaranteeing a smooth handover of power from Britain to Peking in almost six months' time.

According to a commentary which appeared in China's leading newspapers, most of Hong Kong's people are backing the new body. But many of the defeated candidates are taking a more jaundiced view, despite the fact that the 70 who were unsuccessful went through the same vetting process as the 60 who were elected, in order to secure China's approval for their candidature.

As things turned out, three-quarters of the successful candidates came from among the ranks of the 399 voters who selected them. Candidates who were not members of the selection body were even denied access to the hotel where the selectors were staying in the Chinese border town of Shenzhen.

They are now privately offering a foretaste of the troubles which lie ahead. One put it this way: "Before Britain leaves," he said, "it is good enough for us all to be pro-Peking, but afterwards pro-Peking won't mean anything, that's when you'll see all the squabbling breaking out because the so called pro-China camp don't really agree on anything except their opposition to the British."

The new legislature has what may be regarded as a token opposition, consisting of six members previously associated with the pro-democracy camp. The overwhelming majority are old style pro-China stalwarts and recent converts who used to be bastions of the British establishment.

They will certainly not be a thorn in the side of the Chinese government. But they will have to struggle to gain credibility, not just because they were chosen by such a small group of people, but also because they are far from representing the brightest and best in Hong Kong politics.

Many of those fitting that description are in the pro-democracy camp which had majority backing in the existing legislature but will be absent from the new body.

An additional complication is that the Provisional Legislative Council will have to meet in Shenzhen because China is worried that the democrats will challenge its legitimacy in the courts if it sits in Hong Kong.China also wants to avoid the inevitable protests which would accompany sittings in the colony.

However, Shenzhen is far from an ideal choice of venue. It is a typical frontier town, hiding its wild west characteristics behind gleaming skyscrapers reaching ever closer to the sky.

The city hailed by China'sparamount leader, Deng Xiaoping, as an example of economic development also seems to be a home to uninhibited prostitution, and a place where drug dealing takes place on an alarming scale.

The hotel chosen for the selectors to stay in has a particularly notorious reputation for being populated by a large army of prostitutes.

Indeed, on the eve of the poll a number of them turned up at the hotel to find it sealed off to the public because members of the selection committee were "working".

"We're trying to work too," objected one of the women.

Meanwhile, Britain's promise to mobilise international support against the new body has produced immediate backingfrom the United States and Australia.

The Americans described the establishment of the Provisional Legislature as a "very worrisome development".

Yesterday, the Australian Foreign Minister, Alexander Downer, said: "The maintenance and development of democratic political institutions [are] important factors in Hong Kong's continued success as an international business centre."

However, mindful of the trading consequences, it is unlikely that any of Britain's allies - or indeed Britain itself - will follow up these protests with any form of action against China.