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Wednesday, September 15, 2004

The New York Times > Opinion > Hong Kong's Election

The New York Times > Opinion > Hong Kong's Election: "September 15, 2004
Hong Kong's Election

September 15, 2004
Hong Kong's Election

Elections in Hong Kong this week were a big disappointment as an exercise in democracy. Pro-democracy or independent-minded candidates won about 60 percent of the vote, a stunning victory by any measure except the one applied to this election. Under the skewed system Beijing insists on maintaining, that entitled the pro-democracy candidates to only about 40 percent of the seats in the legislature. That will make it harder for democrats to push for more freedoms, like the direct election of the territory's chief executive. It may also be difficult for pro-democracy legislators to do more than delay the initiatives favored by the Chinese government and its chosen chief executive, Tung Chee-hwa.

But despite shady campaign tactics and problems at voting sites, we hope that there was a lesson for Beijing in the results and that Sunday's vote was not a complete loss for the forces of openness. Democracy advocates increased the size of their potential coalition by at least four seats, which means that things are at least moving in the right direction. At the same time, the success of pro-Beijing candidates should give Communist Party leaders more confidence to keep their distance and allow Hong Kong's tentative democracy the time and space to mature.

Hong Kong's voters made it clear that they urgently want to participate in their own government. Turnout was high, a stunning 55.6 percent of the eligible population. There were also signs of democratic support in unexpected quarters. Of the 60 seats in Hong Kong's legislature, 30 are elected by special interests - by businesses and professions that tend to take a pragmatic pro-Beijing line. Half of the votes for these positions went to democrats, but that yielded them only 6 of the 30 seats.

At this point, it is still hard to tell how China's central government will ultimately respond to these elections. China's official news agency said the election " is believed to be the most democratic election in Hong Kong's history,'' which sounds encouraging. But it does not allay legitimate worries that Beijing and its supporters in Hong Kong could try to impose stricter security measures on this new legislature after it convenes on Oct. 1. That would be a mistake. The last effort at tightening security in Hong Kong in 2003 brought so many thousands of residents to the streets that the government backed off.

Sunday's elections were hardly the clean sweep that was needed in Hong Kong's young legislature. But the modest increase in democratic voices should help legislators and residents resist any loss of present freedoms in the name of stability or security.


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