Jasper Becker: A flicker of hope for democracy in China

Instead of browbeating the Hong Kong electorate, Beijing tried a new sunshine policy

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Sunday's elections in Hong Kong, the tiny corner of China where they are tolerated, turned out rather well for Beijing. The Democrats pocketed one extra seat to get 18 of the Legislative Assembly's 30 directly elected seats, while pro-Beijing politicians picked up another five to get 12 seats, despite the support of the heroically unpopular Tung Chee-hwa.

Sunday's elections in Hong Kong, the tiny corner of China where they are tolerated, turned out rather well for Beijing. The Democrats pocketed one extra seat to get 18 of the Legislative Assembly's 30 directly elected seats, while pro-Beijing politicians picked up another five to get 12 seats, despite the support of the heroically unpopular Tung Chee-hwa.

It is the first time the Chinese Communist Party has played a skilful hand in any elections; it smeared its enemies, put up more flags and dangled enough economic allures to attract some undecided voters. This could have big repercussions, not so much for Hong Kong but for Taiwan and the future of democracy on the mainland, home to nearly a quarter of humanity.

A few months ago, no one could have thought it possible that the pro-Beijing camp could make any gains in Hong Kong. Beijing had re-installed the chief executive or governor Tung Chee-hwa for a second term, against the popular mood. Tung infuriated the 7 million Hong Kongers with a draconian national security law and then by fumbling the Sars crisis. As the economy went down the drain, half a million took to the streets in peaceful opposition. This July, nearly as many renewed the pro-democracy protests. The Democrats rode a wave of optimism as Beijing lashed out like a wounded tiger. It staged a nasty campaign to derail a bandwagon calling for direct elections of the chief executive by 2007, when Tung's second term expires. Across the Straits, Taiwan's third presidential election had seen Beijing's worst enemy, Chen Shui-bian, re-elected on a platform of independence. Once again, the Taiwanese had ignored Beijing's military blustering .

These events threw fuel on the fire that is burning inside medieval courtyards of Zhongnanhai, where President Hu Jintao lives and rules. The muffled sound of a big fight is emerging from the vermilion walls. Hu wants to force his predecessor, Jiang Zemin, to retire from his last big title as military chief when the Central Committee assembles for its annual meeting on Thursday.

Casting himself as a liberal by trying to make a push for glasnost, much to the fury of his grumpy old predecessor, Hu has begun making public reports of the meetings of the politburo. He has also tried to abolish the Vatican-like enclaves by the seaside at Beidaihe, where party gerontocrats traditionally spend August deciding everything by themselves.

Hu's actions smack of political reform, and the infighting has grown nasty. There are rumours that Jiang's entrepreneurial sons may have been arrested, or least some of their cronies, a traditional sign of a major upheaval at the top. In response, Jiang has fumed that Hu is courting national disaster by allowing the Taiwanese to get away with their insolence. The two leaders are now refusing to be photographed together in the People's Daily.

Hu Jintao seems to be gaining the upper hand. China called off its annual summer war games in which troops practice an invasion of Taiwan. In Hong Kong, a new sunshine policy started. Instead of browbeating the electorate, the authorities tried to win them round by appealing both to their pockets and their patriotism.

Democratic politicians who had been barred from entering China since the 1989 Tiananmen massacre were suddenly given visas, although one of them was turned back when he went to Shanghai, a Jiang stronghold.

Beijing sent down Yang Liwei, its popular astronaut, showed off its finest troops and paraded its Olympic gold medal champions. It expanded a free trade pact and invited Hong Kong businesses to invest in the giant Olympic infrastructure projects in Beijing. Most of all, it can claim credit for turning the Hong Kong economy around by encouraging a tide of mainland tourists to flood in, crowd the shops and hotels, prop up the stock market and snap up the empty flats.

Many people in Hong Kong are still convinced that they are being stitched up by an unholy alliance between greedy Hong Kong tycoons and the party's hatchet men. That may be why the wilder fringes of Hong Kong's opposition did unexpectedly well at the polls, including Albert Cheng, a motor-mouth radio host and the last Marxist left in China, and "Long Hair" Leung Kwok-hung, a heckling activist who sports a Che Guevara T-shirt.

The dark and dirty side of Communist Party electioneering was certainly on view during the campaign. Many believe the party has been using triad gang members against vocal opponents like Albert Cheng, who survived chopper attacks and threats against his family, and had to leave the territory for several months for his safety. Emily Lau, another prominent critic, had her offices smeared with excrement and her house broken into. Another opposition candidate, Ho Wai-to, was jailed for six months after police alleged he was caught in bed with a prostitute. It was an unusual penalty in a country where prostitution is rife.

The good news here in Beijing is that the unfolding power struggle might just leave a more liberal generation in control. This might be one that could one day feel prepared to fight and win at the polls. In that case, Hong Kong could be the start of something big that could spread all over China; but that is still a very distant cloud.

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