HK gets first taste of rule by Peking

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China yesterday organised a set-piece event which gave the people of Hong Kong a good idea of what it will feel like next year when Peking resumes sovereignty over the colony.

Outside it looked and felt like Hong Kong. Demonstrators chanted democracy slogans while limousines drew into the forecourt of an adjacent hotel, disgorging expensively dressed patrons. Inside the ultra- modern Convention Centre, Chinese officials managed perfectly to reproduce the appearance and atmosphere of Peking's Great Hall of the People.

Under a red backdrop, with the five-star emblem of the People's Republic at its centre, the 400 members of the committee supposedly "electing" Hong Kong's first post-colonial head of government, or Chief Executive, sat silently while they were lectured by Qian Qichen, China's Vice-Premier and Foreign Minister, who has primary responsibility for Hong Kong in the Chinese hierarchy.

They were told that they had a solemn duty to perform and that, unlike the colonialists, China was giving Hong Kong people a real opportunity to elect their leader. Listening were a group of tycoons who could, if they desired, have liquidated China's national debt and still had more than enough left over to add to their collections of Rolls-Royces.

They form the most influential contingent in the Selection Committee, which yesterday completed the first stage of the "election". Not surprisingly, they were being called on to choose one of their number as the first Chief Executive. Any doubt that China's preferred candidate will be chosen at the second stage, on 11 December, was dispelled when the shipping tycoon Tung Che-Hwa was nominated by 206 of the committee's members.

In the polls, he is trailing the former chief justice Sir Ti Liang Yang, but the public is not being allowed to vote and so Sir Ti Liang secured only 82 nominations from the electors who count. As one of the other trailing candidates, the businessman Peter Woo, said, public opinion is "only a piece of data" and matters little in this race.

Mr Qian was sensitive to criticism that it was something of a farce. "People must not think the Chief Executive has been pre-ordained," he said. Mr Tung was equally keen to preserve the illusion of a real contest. "I don't think it's a foregone conclusion," he said. The illusion of a contest is important to sustain Mr Qian's claim that "the process of setting up the Selection Committee is the real beginning of democracy in Hong Kong and not the end".

Another interpretation of the committee's work came earlier in the week from a legislator, Leung Yiu-chung, who described it as "foul grass growing out of a foul ditch". He was expelled from the Legislative Council, worsening the relationship between pro-Peking and pro-democracy forces. Another legislator,Yeung Sum, when asked why he had joined a vigil to protest against the Selection Committee, said: "If all of us disappear, people will think that people in Hong Kong are very complacent. We need to make our voice known."

The protesters tried to present a letter to Mr Qian, but only managed to pass it to a minor official. The Vice-Premier has never before paid a formal visit to Hong Kong. Yesterday he was whisked across the border in the morning and left as soon as he could in the afternoon so as not to coincide with the Governor, Chris Patten, who was returning from Europe.

Meanwhile, in the hall where the "election" was taking place, there was no hint of any symbol other than that of the People's Republic. Reporters were subject to strict vetting, which is typical of how business is conducted in Peking. It did not seem that 1 July was 228 days away.