Former allies square up for final elections

Democrats fight off Pro-Peking candidates, writes Stephen Vines in Hong Kong
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The Independent Online
There is no clearer sign that Hong Kong politics has come of age than the battle for a municipal council seat in the grimy industrial district of Kwun Tong.

The prime contestants are 81-year-old Elsie Tu and 63-year-old Szeto Wah. Mrs Tu, previously known as Elsie Elliot, has been a pugnacious civil-rights fighter for four decades. Mr Szeto, a charismatic speaker, has dedicated his life to politics, spending a great deal of it fighting for democracy in China.

In the days when the colonial government ruled without much reference to public opinion, aside from the views of business leaders, Mrs Tu and Mr Szeto both incurred the wrath of the establishment.

Nowadays, Mrs Tu, who was born in Newcastle, is no less suspicious of the British administration than Mr Szeto, but has become one of China's hand-picked advisers on Hong Kong affairs, while Mr Szeto has been branded as one of Peking's most hated enemies in the territory.

The municipal elections next month are theoretically about who is best at supervising rubbish collection, the organisation of public parks and other activities run by the two councils. In practice, they are a test- run for the pro-democracy and pro-Peking forces for the bigger battle in September's Legislative Council elections.

Yesterday Zhang Junsheng, one of China's unofficial representatives in Hong Kong, called for "patriotic" Hong Kongers to stand in the municipal and legislative elections, even though Peking says it will dismantle both bodies when it takes over the territory from Britain in 1997.

Old alliances and friendships have been submerged in the political atmosphere. Mrs Tu's apparent, although fiercely denied, progress in the direction of the pro-Peking camp has left her vulnerable to opposition from the pro-democracy activists for the first time in her long political career.

Mr Szeto is one of the leaders of the Democratic Party, by far the largest and most successful of Hong Kong's new political parties. It is fielding 33 candidates in the municipal elections on 5 March.

The main opposition to the Democratic Party comes from the even newer Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong (DAB), which is supporting Mrs Tu. The DAB is in effect Peking's chosen party, maintaining a sometimes independent, but basically loyal line of support for the Chinese government. The Communist Party, most of whose members are in the DAB, maintains a clandestine existence. Astonishingly, in a town so dominated by money- making and the business community, the Liberal Party, the only real business- oriented party, is something of a shambles. It has managed to muster only three candidates to fight these elections.

The core of the party is composed of politicians appointed to the legislative and other councils by the former Governor, Lord Wilson. They have been making extraordinary efforts to shake off the image of colonial patronage and make themselves acceptable to Hong Kong's future masters in Peking.

The net result has been to breed cynicism about the party and has led to a number of prominent defections. Nevertheless, the Liberals have benefited from lavish financing by the business community.

About half the candidates carry no party affiliation, but in the increasingly politicised atmosphere, tend to be allied informally with one of the parties. In the rural areas, where the leftists have strong historical roots, some well-known local personalities are happy to be labelled as pro-Peking. The DAB, which is more urban based, will not put up candidates to oppose them.

Most pundits think that the democrats will again do well in the coming elections, with the pro-Peking forces making significant inroads.

However, there may, be a backlash against the unaccustomed intrusion of party politics, which could mean victory for a number of independents who are running less well organised campaigns.