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China Takes Carrot, Sticks, Tricks Approach to Hong Kong Election

The legislative vote may determine how much democracy Beijing will tolerate.

September 11, 2004|Mark Magnier | Times Staff Writer

HONG KONG — Beijing may not have much experience running elections, given that the Chinese Communist Party has a monopoly on power and isn't inclined to put its support to the test before voters.

But even some of its harshest critics give it grudging credit for running an all-out campaign to shore up Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa and the pro-Beijing Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong before the territory's legislative elections Sunday.

"We're not really fighting with the DAB, which I call the 'Democracy According to Beijing' party," said Martin Lee, a key figure in the opposition Democratic Party. "Our real opponent in this election is the Chinese Communist Party."

As candidates enter the final hours of electioneering, the race is shaping up as a test of how much democracy China will tolerate in the territory.

When Hong Kong reverted to Chinese rule in 1997 after a century and a half as part of the British empire, Beijing outlined a tolerant vision wherein the territory would continue to enjoy Western-style political freedoms even under the Chinese flag.

Critics fret that this construct is eroding. They say the slogan developed by the late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping to describe Hong Kong's relations with China -- one country, two systems -- may need an addendum after the lead-up to this election: carrots, sticks and dirty tricks.

During the last few months, China has trotted out a host of incentives designed to lull residents into feeling warm and fuzzy toward the mainland, and by extension toward its designated hitters in the Tung government. These include a cameo appearance by celebrities such as China's first astronaut and gold medalists from the recent Olympic Games.

Chinese officials, hoping that Hong Kong residents will vote with their pocketbooks in mind, have unveiled measures such as allowing a sharp increase in mainland tourists to Hong Kong, expanding economic links between the territory and southern Chinese provinces, and proposing a new bridge to the mainland province of Guangdong and stepped-up air links with China.

They've used sticks, arguing that opposition candidates will undermine Hong Kong's prosperity, that only pro-Beijing representatives have the connections on the mainland to bring home the economic cookies, and that anyone who fails to support the DAB is unpatriotic, a theme reminiscent of the turbulent 1966-76 Cultural Revolution.

Finally, the campaign has been characterized by what some see as dirty tricks, including: the arrest of pro-democracy candidate Ho Wai-to in Guangdong weeks before the election on charges of soliciting a prostitute; his rapid-fire sentencing without trial to six months in a labor camp, which prevents him from running; a leaked scandal that pro-democratic candidates were skimming on their rent; alleged intimidation of pro-democracy radio talk show hosts; and reports that Hong Kong businesspeople were being pressured to vote DAB by their Chinese partners.

"China's trying to influence Hong Kong people with all these celebrities and dirty tricks," said John Hui, 83, a retired accountant. "Beijing is afraid of democracy. Getting democracy from the Communists is like trying to skin a tiger.... But I think Hong Kong people are too smart for that."

In response to allegations of meddling in the election, Beijing's China Daily ran an article saying such moves were justified if needed to maintain China's sovereignty. DAB candidate Choy So Yuk said Hong Kong was no stranger to meddling -- including U.S. interference in the form of reports criticizing the territory's human rights record.

Several voters, however, seemed to take the charges and countercharges in stride, and bread-and-butter issues still appeared to carry the day.

"It won't really affect my vote," said Micky Wong, 36, an air-conditioning salesman. "Most people look at results, jobs, the economy and whether the candidate will do a good job."

Even so, the pro-Beijing strategy appears to be making some modest inroads. After early predictions that pro-democratic candidates would take half of the 60 seats up for grabs, some experts now put it closer to 26 seats, up from 22 -- still a good showing but not a rout.

"Beijing has a lot it can offer," said David Zweig, a social scientist at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

Pro-democracy candidates fear that even if some of the allegations against their members don't stick, the Beijing camp will feed voters' disillusionment with the process. They also argue that they would do far better if the system weren't rigged in favor of pro-Beijing parties.

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