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Last Updated: Tuesday, 27 April, 2004, 12:17 GMT 13:17 UK
Where next for HK's democracy?

By Chris Hogg
BBC correspondent in Hong Kong

As Hong Kong's Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa is whisked about in his air conditioned car, he may be wondering whether he soon may be feeling the heat from the streets.
Tung Chee-hwa
Mr Tung could be facing a long, hot summer

In the territory's Wanchai district, almost everyone you ask is frustrated by China's decision to rule out direct elections for the next chief executive in 2007.

"It stinks," said one office worker. "It's high time the Hong Kong people had the right to vote for who they want."

But from some there was a sense of resignation.

"It's an important issue, but it's difficult to fight against Beijing," one man said. "What can we do?"

That, now, is the interesting question.

Pro-democracy activists are likely to focus their attention on a rally due to be held on 1 July to try to pile on the pressure.

The rally will come one year after half a million people took to the streets to protest against government plans to introduce controversial security laws, and ahead of the elections to Hong Kong's mini-parliament, the Legislative Council (Legco), in September.

Hong Kong's Government will face continuous challenges from various pressure groups which will plunge it into greater crisis for years to come
Professor Ma Ngok, HK's University of Science and Technology
Last year's protest prompted a U-turn by the Hong Kong Government, which shelved the security bill.

That seems less likely this time.

The chairman of the Hong Kong Bar Association, Edward Chan King-sang, has already pointed out that the decision, by China's highest policy-making body, the standing committee of the National People's Congress (NPCSC), is final. There is no channel of appeal.

But a demonstration of a similar size would still be a blow to the Tung administration's credibility.

The Legco elections in September could offer more of an opportunity for those who oppose this decision to make a real difference.

For the first time, half of Legco's 60 seats will be elected by popular vote, more than ever before.

On the one hand, this offers the democrats an opportunity.

"The pro-government parties will try to argue that political reform is now no longer an issue and voters should focus on other matters," argued Christine Loh, founder of the think-tank Civic Exchange.

"How the voters actually feel is another matter," she said.

A protestor burns a copy of the Hong Kong constitution
Activists feel Beijing has broken its pledge to uphold HK's autonomy
Many analysts believe the pro-government parties will suffer as a result of China's decision. The Liberal Party, which positions itself as the party of business and the middle classes, has said it supports and respects the decision, as has the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong, another pro-Beijing party

If the democratic parties can win as many as possible of the 30 directly-elected seats, and if they can attract support from one or two of the other members on the council, they could be able to seriously frustrate government business and win controversial votes.

Legco's other members, the indirectly-elected representatives of professional groups like solicitors or accountants, are generally perceived as loyal to Beijing. But some, such as those representing social workers or medical workers, have in the past shown a willingness to side with the democrats on controversial votes.

The system is, however, cleverly arranged to make it almost impossible for Legco to derail government policy. Government bills need a simple majority to pass, while bills or amendments introduced by members need to be passed by a two thirds majority.

But pro-democracy campaigners nonetheless argue that a large vote for their candidates in September will send a strong message to Mr Tung and Beijing; and if it means they win enough seats to cause trouble, so much the better.

Consultation process

In the meantime, the Hong Kong government's process of consultation on constitutional change continues.

It is likely that in the longer term more and more people will find [the political struggle] futile
Dr Chor-yung Cheung, HK's City University
A task force headed by a senior official has been handed the job of trying to reach consensus in the territory over any limited constitutional reform.

One of the criticisms of China's decision to rule out direct elections in 2007 was that it was made before this process was completed.

Next month the task force will publish a report setting out tweaks in the system of electing the chief executive which might be possible, within the parameters set out by China.

But Professor Ma Ngok, a political scientist from Hong Kong's University of Science and Technology, dismissed the legitimacy of the consensus building.

"The consultation process will not be meaningful or legitimate," he argued "because everyone in Hong Kong takes it as fake."

"Because of this, Hong Kong's Government will face continuous challenges from various pressure groups which will plunge it into greater crisis for years to come," he said.

That confrontation could be bad news for the Democrats, too, warned Dr Chor-yung Cheung from Hong Kong's City University.

"Given the balance of power as it is between Beijing and Hong Kong it is likely that in the longer term more and more people will find [the political struggle] futile in the face of an intransigent sovereign, and just resign from politics," he said.

"That will made the democratic movement in Hong Kong difficult to sustain in the longer term."

In response, pro-democracy campaigners will argue that this makes it all the more important for people to register their protest at the ballot box.

The other significance of China's decision could be the effect it has elsewhere - in Taiwan for instance.

The system agreed for Hong Kong of 'One Country, Two Systems' was originally conceived as a model for Taiwan.

But with pro-democracy groups in Hong Kong complaining that Beijing has killed off the system, in Taipei people may be asking themselves: "If that's what autonomy within China amounts to, is it really what we want?"

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