Hong Kong poll seen as dry run for bigger issues

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The Independent Online
IT TAKES Chao Shing-kie all evening to knock on the doors of one of the 48 tower blocks that make up his Heng Fa Chuen constituency. 'We go to the top, and walk down,' he said. 'There are eight doors on each level. I introduce myself, tell them when the polls will start, but we don't usually talk about issues. It's a polite call.' His election team gets quite fit in the process, he added.

Mr Chao, 53, works for a mainland- owned bank and is standing for the pro- Peking party, the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong (DAB) in Sunday's district board elections. The polls are the first electoral test for the DAB, formed after the 1991 elections when, with memories of the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown still vivid, the United Democrats of Hong Kong (UDHK) swept the board. The contest in Heng Fa Chuen pitches the DAB and the UDHK into a head-to-head fight, which will be extremely close.

The concrete jungle atmosphere of Heng Fa Chuen belies the upwardly mobile nature of its residents, most of whom own their very valuable appartments. According to Cheng Kai-nam, the DAB's secretary-general: 'The UDHK see this battle as symbolic. They think we want a victory in a middle-class area. Frankly, that's exactly what we want.'

Elections for the colony's lowest tier of government would normally be too parochial to attract much outside attention, but this year they offer a barometer for two key questions: how interested are people in actually voting and how acceptable are the pro-Peking candidates? For the parties, the polls are a dry run for next year's municipal, regional and Legislative Council (Legco) elections.

Sunday's vote is the first to take place under the electoral reform package of Chris Patten, the Governor of Hong Kong, which passed into law in June after a near two-year stand-off with the Chinese government. For the Governor, a decent turn-out is crucial; otherwise the diplomatic row with Peking over democracy begins to look ill-judged.

The vote takes place as Sino-British relations are once again particularly sour. The Foreign Secretary, Douglas Hurd, arrived in the colony yesterday with China set to block a big project, the CT9 container terminal, alleging that Mr Patten had awarded the contract to the British-owned company, Jardine Matheson, in return for support for his reforms.

China has already said that on 1 July, 1997, all electoral bodies will be disbanded but the pro-Peking parties are actively contesting these elections. The DAB is fielding 83 candidates, second only to the UDHK/Meeting Point coalition with 133. Five other parties and many independents are taking part. A record 757 candidates are vying for 346 seats, all of which will be elected for the first time. Under the Patten package, district board members will also next year elect 10 people to sit in Legco.

Mr Chao's opponent is Chan Tim- shing, who won Heng Fa Chuen for the UDHK in 1991. Mr Chao promises action on noise pollution, the local post office's opening hours, and local facilities; Mr Chan has a similar agenda. Both parties seek to represent the lower and middle classes, but the DAB has a reputation for being stronger at grass-roots level. Dr Norman Miners, at the political science department at Hong Kong University, said Sunday's elections would largely be settled on local issues. He added: 'But you can get a lot of votes from friends, friends of friends, and neighbours.'

Up to 800,000 may take part and the the UDKH are expected to do best, with a good showing for independents, a passable performance by the pro-Peking groups. Fairly dismal results are on the cards for the pro-business Liberal party.

Mr Patten's problem is that the turn- out figure will look low because the electoral roll of 2.5 million is hopelessly inaccurate. New voters were simply added to the list this year, without deleting address changes. There were red faces when Anson Chan, the new Chief Secretary, found that her polling card had been delivered to her official home along with those for two predecessors, Sir David Akers-Jones and Sir David Ford.