Political Reforms Debated in Hong Kong

Hong Kong's legislature is scheduled to vote this week on a controversial political reform package. At issue is the speed at which the former British colony moves towards direct elections and full democracy: The package does not include a roadmap for achieving universal suffrage, something Hong Kong residents have been demanding.

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Hong Kong's legislature is scheduled to vote this week on a controversial political reform package. At issue is the speed at which the former British colony moves towards direct elections and full democracy. Hong Kong reverted to Chinese sovereignty in 1997 with a constitutional guarantee of autonomy. NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Hong Kong.

(Soundbite of demonstrators)

ANTHONY KUHN reporting:

On December 4th, tens of thousands of demonstrators took to the streets calling for a timetable for direct elections. Under pressure, Chief Executive Donald Tsang offered modifications to his reform package on Monday, including an eventual decrease in the number and power of unelected district councilors.

Mr. DONALD TSANG (Chief Executive): Hong Kong's political system is ready to take a significant step towards universal suffrage. All we need now is a (unintelligible) of legislators to allow us to take this step forward.

KUHN: The reform package would increase the size of the 60-seat legislature to 70 and double the 800-member electoral committee that chooses the chief executive. Hong Kong's constitution mandates gradual progress towards direct elections, but neither Beijing nor Tsang will say exactly when that will happen, just that it won't be before 2008. Liberal legislators say that without the timetable, the reform package is unacceptable and they'll vote it down. One of them is lawyer Margaret Ng.

Ms. MARGARET NG (Attorney): It's only when you have a clear commitment that Hong Kong people will know that you are not indefinitely delaying universal suffrage and that means a lot to them.

KUHN: Before becoming Hong Kong's chief executive, Tsang was a civil servant under the British colonial government for 30 years. In his trademark bow tie and glasses, Tsang has carefully cultivated his public image as an efficient manager which a defeat in the legislature this week could damage. Tsang also came under pressure Monday from Anson Chan, the popular ex-head of Hong Kong's civil service. In a press conference, she challenged Tsang on his commitment to democracy.

Ms. ANSON CHAN: Is Mr. Tsang willing to make a commitment to the Hong Kong people that he will make a case to central government for universal suffrage in Hong Kong by the year 2012?

KUHN: China's central government has sometimes feared that Hong Kong's demands for direct elections could spread to the mainland or that it could become a base for subversion, but Chinese officials have recently been acknowledging Hong Kong residents' aspirations for democracy. Beijing has also worked to cultivate ties with the legislature which it once shunned as a nasty leftover of British colonial rule. Christine Loh is a former legislator and head of the think tank Civic Exchange. She says Hong Kong is too small and far from Beijing to pose much of a threat to China's rulers.

Ms. CHRISTINE LOH (Civic Exchange): They must have a very high level of confidence, that Hong Kong people--I mean, we're not going to upset the apple cart. We're not here to call for the downfall of the Chinese Communist Party.

KUHN: In the long run, Donald Tsang may have to worry less about Beijing than about offending Hong Kong's own elites. Powerful business leaders and professional groups pack both the legislature and the committee that chooses the executive. They're generally conservative and compliant with Beijing's wishes. Margaret Ng says Donald Tsang's proposed reforms actually help these elites maintain their influence and that poses risks.

Ms. NG: He has to balance the interests of the ...(unintelligible) so to speak. He has to convince them that if they insist on their vested interest being protected in this blatant sort of way, we are looking at a very discontent community.

KUHN: Ng and others urged Tsang to take back the reform package and rework it to include a road map for a full democracy, but Tsang refused. The legislature will begin debating the measure tomorrow and a vote is expected to follow soon.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Hong Kong.

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