Hong Kong Voters Send Message to Beijing: We Want Democracy

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:14 PM EDT

Pacific Rim Bureau (CNSNews.com) - A local government election in Hong Kong is seen as a significant milestone in the growing campaign to seek a more democratic future for the territory than its political masters in Beijing ever envisaged.

In Sunday's election, the pro-democracy Democratic Party made significant gains, while the party most closely associated with the communist mainland government, the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong (DAB), suffered its worst showing in its 11-year history.

It was the first ballot-box test of the public mood since the Hong Kong government was forced to back down this year on plans to pass controversial security laws at Beijing's insistence.

The DAB had thrown its weight behind the security legislation which the territory's pro-Beijing chief executive, Tung Chee-hwa, tried to introduce last summer.

The bill, known as Article 23, sought to prevent subversion against the central government in Beijing. China took control of the former British colony in 1997, but undertook to maintain Hong Kong's capitalist way of life for at least 50 years.

After an estimated half a million people protested in Hong Kong on July 1, Tung backed down, first postponing and then eventually scrapping plans to enact Article 23.

Public opposition to the legislation helped strengthen a growing pro-democracy movement, as more residents of Hong Kong began to call for the right to directly elect their leaders and lawmakers.

Under Hong Kong's limited self-governing arrangement, the chief executive is selected by a pro-Beijing electoral committee.

Only 24 out of 60 lawmakers in the Legislative Council are directly elected by voters. The rest are chosen by the electoral committee or by "functional constituencies," special interest groups representing a small segment of Hong Kong's seven million people.

The pro-democracy movement is calling for universal suffrage, to enable voters to elect their own chief executive in 2007, and their own lawmakers by the following year.

Although Sunday's elections were only for district councils which wield little power, they gave Hong Kong residents the first opportunity to have their say since Tung's government attempted to push through the anti-subversion legislation.

Not only did the electorate punish the pro-Beijing party, but they also turned out in much larger than expected numbers to do so, an indication of the new importance given to politics in a territory better known for its preoccupation with business.

The turnout of 44 percent was relatively high for local elections, which have not rated a higher turnout than 36 percent over the past decade.

The DAB fielded 206 candidates but saw only 64 succeed, and several senior leaders lost their seats.

The Democratic Party, meanwhile, fielded 120 candidates and returned 93, a 10 percent improvement on its results in the last election.

Democratic Party chairman Yeung Sum hailed the outcome, calling it "a clear message to Tung Chee-hwa and the Chinese government that the public wants full democracy."

He predicted that the turnout in the next elections for the Legislative Council, in September 2004, would be high. In that election, half of the seats in the legislative body will be directly elected by voters.

DAB chairman chief Tsang Yok-shing has handed in his resignation because of the party's poor showing.

Stephen Vines, a commentator and editor of a newly-launched political satire magazine, predicted that this week's election will be identified as "a key turning point" in Hong Kong's political development.

Even at local level, he wrote Tuesday, Hong Kong voters have started to think along political party lines, and much of their thoughts appeared to be directed at punishing the DAB for its links to an unpopular government.

Tung's administration itself acknowledged the significance of the event. Constitutional Affairs Secretary Stephen Lam told reporters that both the protests on July 1, and the local government elections, were "important events in this year's political calendar."

How Beijing responds to the developments in Hong Kong remains to be seen.

Vice-President Zeng Qinghong, who was made China's point man on Hong Kong after the July protests, recently visited the territory, where he sought to link a brighter outlook for Hong Kong's flagging economy to closer ties with the mainland.

Beijing also sent Yang Liwei, China's first man in space, to Hong Kong for his first public appearances after his manned space mission last October.

Tung's opponents charged that the astronaut was being used by the mainland government as part of its propaganda campaign aimed at shoring up support for the deeply-unpopular chief executive.

See earlier story:
Pro-Democracy Drive Taking Shape in Hong Kong (July 14, 2003)

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow