Poll marks endgame in Hong Kong transition

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The Independent Online

Hong Kong

Even by the standards of Hong Kong, where little is as it seems, tomorrow's Legislative Council election is a curious beast. Whatever the result, Governor Chris Patten will remain in power, two-thirds of the 60 members will be elected by methods which have more in common with 18th-century rotten boroughs than modern democracy, and China says it will replace the entire legislature less than halfway through its four-year term.

Just to add to the atmosphere of uncertainty as the colony prepares for what is still the freest election in its history, a typhoon is forecast to sweep in from the South China Sea. The force and timing of its approach could have a drastic effect on some results.

Thanks to Britain's late conversion to the concept of democracy in Hong Kong, and China's continuing distaste for the idea, the election arrangements for the legislature are a nightmare. A third of the 60 members will be elected from the 20 constituencies into which the territory is divided, allowing the free play of policies and parties.

Another 21 legislators, however, will be elected by small "functional constituencies" representing such professional and commercial groups as accountants, bankers and engineers - nine have already been returned unopposed. China refused to allow any more directly elected seats, and resisted the abolition of the "functionals", which can easily be manipulated. Mr Patten's solution was to create nine new ones with much broader electorates.

The 10 remaining members will be chosen by an electoral committee which the Chinese wanted to pack with hand-picked sympathisers. Instead it will consist of the colony's 283 elected District Board members.

Tomorrow's poll is rife with contradictions. Having incurred so much bad blood with Peking in trying to increase the amount of democracy in Hong Kong by just a fraction, Mr Patten's administration is anxious that it should be a success. The government has plastered the colony with HK$21m (pounds 1.75m) worth of posters, leaflets and banners urging support for the election, and boasts of record numbers of candidates and voters, but will not concede that a low turnout might imply a lack of confidence among Hong Kong's 6 million people. China, meanwhile, denounces the exercise as an irrelevance at the same time as the New China News Agency, its unofficial embassy in the colony, issues lists of the candidates it supports and mobilises thousands of people to work for them.

According to Michael DeGolyer of the Hong Kong Transition Project, an academic group which has been monitoring political development since 1989, most voters are tired of the ideological wrangling between Britain and China, which they see as having stalled progress on the social and economic issues concerning them. Partly as a result of uncertainty before 1997, growth has slowed and unemployment has risen, lending a new note of populism to the campaign.

The Democratic Party, led by Martin Lee, is anathema to Peking because of its outspoken criticism of Chinese repression. In demanding higher welfare spending, however, it is united with the main pro-China party, the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong. The business elite, which used to be routinely appointed to the legislature, now has to stand for election like everyone else, and will see its influence much reduced.

Although political life in Hong Kong remains embryonic, and may well be stillborn under the Chinese, the campaign has been vigorously fought, with more people than ever before taking part. Dr DeGolyer argues that even though the turnout is expected to be only 35 to 40 per cent, "that should be considered very respectable". He added: "If Hong Kong's Governor were up for election, we could confidently forecast a much greater than 50 per cent turnout."

The outcome is expected to be a Legislative Council in which Peking's political opponents will fall short of a majority. But Mr Patten will be faced with troublesome demands to spend the colony's reserves, an issue which arouses paranoia in China.

But the Governor may consider the pain worth it. Tomorrow's exercise opens the endgame in the transition to Chinese rule, and a Legislative Council with roots in the community may be harder to pull up than Peking imagines.