Monday, March 26, 2007

Tsang wins Hong Kong poll

Hong Kong politician Alan Leong has complained of vote rigging after losing the leadership race to incumbent Donald Tsang on the weekend. The Beijing-backed Tsang won the 800 member election committee vote 649 to 123 to keep office for a second term of five years. Leong called the vote a “rigged small-circle election” and called for universal suffrage.

Besides Beijing favour, Tsang currently enjoys high public approval ratings in Hong Kong which is partly due to a buoyant economy. But many people are growing increasingly impatient for democratic reform. Tsang claims he favours an open democratic system and a new constitution but has offered no proposal or timeframe to carry it out.

Tsang released a valedictory press statement yesterday after his re-election in which he claimed the election “has laid out a solid foundation for moving toward universal suffrage”. He also praised the people of Hong Kong for their “maturity” as well as expressing his honour at retaining the role as the region’s chief executive. Tsang pledged to put aside his differences with his rival Leong to “work together for our tomorrow”.

Beyond these typically glib post-election remarks, Donald Tsang does have his work cut out. Although he was the candidate supported by Beijing, some influential pro-Beijing forces in Hong Kong remain suspicious of his devout Catholicism and his links both to Britain and high-profile businessmen. The 62 year old Tsang, joined the colonial government 40 years ago and rose to become financial secretary in 1995, the first ethnic Chinese ever to hold such a high post. Britain knighted him for his services prior to the handover. He continued to work for the civil service under the new administration until 2005. Then he stood uncontested for chief executive. His predecessor Tung Chee-hwa had been forced to resign after Chinese President Hu Jintao publicly dressed him down.

So far, Chee-hwa’s successor has avoided the same fate. Hu met Tsang in December 2005 and publicly endorsed the new man at the helm. Hu was happy with the region’s overall situation and praised its “sustained economic growth, social stability, and improved living standards”. Hu also pledged support for Hong Kong’s “development of democracy” though also stressing the need to “maintain stability, accelerate development, and promote harmony”.

Hong Kong has been governed under what former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping called a "one country, two systems" since it was returned to China in 1997. It is one of two Special Administrative Regions (SAR) - Macau is the other - and has its own government but is not fully internationally accredited, with foreign policy and home defence retained as the province of China. It is guaranteed autonomy for 50 years as a SAR. According to Hong Kong's mini-constitution known as the Basic Law, the territory's ultimate aim is to have universal suffrage.

But true democracy is slow in coming to Hong Kong. Its seven million residents having no direct say in the election for chief executive and only elects half of the 60 members of the Legislative Council. There have been some advances. This is the first election where the chief executive has a challenger and Tsang and Leong did have a live television debate prior to the election. But the election itself was decided by a committee of 800 mainly pro-Beijing politicians and representatives of business and professional groups that avoid any direct confrontation with Chinese authorities.

But Hong Kong has long had to live with interference from the mainland. The first evidence of human occupation for 6,000 years. The indigenous population was supplemented by Chinese during the Qin and Han dynasties during the four hundred years commencing 200 BC. It remained a small fishing community and a haven for pirates until Westerners first arrived in China in the 15th century. Hong Kong’s safe harbour was of great interest to traders of silk and tea. Although the Portuguese were first to arrive, it was the British East India Company who established an early outpost there.

Britain used the territory as a naval base during their Opium Wars with China. The Treaty of Nanking in 1842 formally ceded Hong Kong Island to Britain and Sir Henry Pottinger became the territory’s first governor. After further skirmishes, Britain added Kowloon and Stonecutter's Island to territory in 1860. They acquired the New Territories on a 100 year lease in 1898.

Hong Kong’s population grew dramatically with successive refugee invasions after the Chinese monarchy was overthrown in 1912 and again 20 years later when Japan seized Manchuria. Hong Kong itself fell on Christmas Day 1941 and remained in Japanese hands until the end of the war. The colony had a third major wave of immigration after the Communists took power in 1949.

The skills of the post-Communist refugees allied to a vast pool of cheap unskilled labour helped revive the colony’s economy. By the 1970s, Hong Kong was a commercial and tourist capital of South-East Asia. Hong Kong was seen as one of the economic tigers of Asia with a motoring economy and a vibrant population. The only cloud on the horizon was the looming expiry date of the 100 lease of the New Territories. As Hong Kong would not be a viable entity without the Territories, Britain was forced to cede control of the entire province. Margaret Thatcher and Deng Xiaoping came to an agreement in 1984 known as the Sino-British Joint Declaration which allowed the Chinese to resume sovereignty over all of Hong Kong in 1997 in exchange for a period of 50 years in which the colony’s capitalist system would be maintained.

Hong Kong’s autonomy has been enshrined in Basic Law. Hong Kong remains an international entity in events such as the Olympics, APEC and the WTO. English is still taught at schools. Public offices fly the flags of China and the SAR but travel to and from the mainland is considered an international journey. Hong Kong retains freedom of the press but full democracy remains a distant dream. Tsang dodged questions of a timetable to democracy in the debates with Leong. There is no guarantee in Basic Law or anywhere else that Tsang or his successor will be voted in by the will of the people in 2012.

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