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Last Updated: Monday, 13 September, 2004, 12:36 GMT 13:36 UK
China celebrates over HK election

By Tim Luard
BBC News Online, Hong Kong

The limited success of Hong Kong's Democrats in Sunday's elections will be causing deep sighs of relief in Beijing.

Chinese leaders can pride themselves on successfully weathering what had been brewing up to be a nasty political storm on their southern border, a typhoon of the kind that can cause considerable havoc deep inside China itself.

But they would be unwise to assume that Hong Kong's winds of democracy have died out altogether.

Campaigner on Hong Kong street, 12/09/04
China has proved it is learning the election game

Back in July, when hundreds of thousands of demonstrators took to the streets for the second year running, it was widely expected that come September, the new mood of popular defiance would translate itself into a dramatic shift in the balance of power in the Legislative Council.

But in the end, the rulers of the world's last major communist country have proved themselves experts at the election game.

They took a series of measures to help Hong Kong's economy out of the doldrums, sent in their victorious Olympic team and some Buddhist remains to induce feelings of patriotism and helped publicise - if not actually create - various scandals involving their once famously clean-living opponents.

China was helped, admittedly, by electoral rules that mean the biggest vote-getters are not always the overall winners.

"Beijing and its allies were very skilful in exploiting the system to maximise their seats," said Christine Loh, a former member of the Legislative Council who now runs a public think tank.

Christine Loh
Beijing will be feeling much more relaxed, Christine Loh says

"They will be declaring this a victory, saying 'all our strategies were extremely successful'," she told BBC News Online.

And Beijing will now be feeling much more relaxed, she said, when it comes to the thorny issue of Hong Kong's future constitutional reform.

Hopes for dialogue

The pro-democracy parties did, however, win a majority of the vote - and they now have more seats than they have ever held before.

Audrey Yu is a successful candidate from one of the smaller parties in the pan-democracy grouping who was recently voted most popular politician in Hong Kong.

She says the election has sent a clear message to China that there is an overwhelming desire for universal suffrage, despite the surprise success of the pro-Beijing parties.

Asked how she would help get this message of reform across, she told BBC News Online that she herself was prepared to go to Beijing to talk to communist leaders.

"But whether they would see me is not up to us," she said.

One leading member of Hong Kong's Democratic party - referred to by Beijing as "traitors" and "clowns" - was recently refused permission even to attend an academic conference on the mainland.

[Beijing] will respond by mixing its toughness with some soft talking
James Tang, HK University

But the fact that the election ended in a virtual stalemate may have increased the possibility, according to some analysts, of Beijing finally agreeing to open a dialogue with Hong Kong Democrats - or at least some of their more moderate allies.

If its political enemies had done better at the elections, they say, China would have reacted by taking a harder line than ever.

It abandoned its earlier hands-off policy more than a year ago, when former President Jiang Zemin is said to have taken charge of Hong Kong policy.

Since then Beijing has not only stepped in to rule out any possibility of full democracy at the next elections (thus cleverly removing the topic as a meaningful issue in the run-up to Sunday's poll), but has also staged military parades in Hong Kong and sent naval flotillas to help induce more respect for the motherland.

While the election result may be held up by Mr Jiang and other conservatives as a sign of the effectiveness of their policies, it may well be even more welcome news to his rival, current president Hu Jintao, since it opens the way for a new, more consensual approach which would better suit his own style.

"Beijing will say the election result shows the Democrats are not as strong as they claim, but it will respond by mixing its toughness with some soft talking," said James Tang, dean of social sciences at Hong Kong University.

China's leaders would be even more relaxed, he added, if they thought the Hong Kong administration was in capable hands.

Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa is regarded by Hong Kong people of almost all political persuasions as incompetent and has become an embarrassment to his Chinese masters.

A local opinion poll recently showed that most Hong Kong people prefer China's leaders, for all their ideological differences, to their own.

Pro-China win in Hong Kong vote
13 Sep 04  |  Asia-Pacific
Press hails 'record' HK turnout
13 Sep 04  |  Asia-Pacific
HK's Tung spurns democracy plea
07 Jul 04  |  Asia-Pacific
Where next for HK's democracy?
27 Apr 04  |  Asia-Pacific
China veto angers HK democrats
06 Apr 04  |  Asia-Pacific


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