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Sunday, September 25, 2005

China Plans to Allow Hong Kong a Bigger Voice in Choosing Its Leaders - New York Times

China Plans to Allow Hong Kong a Bigger Voice in Choosing Its Leaders - New York TimesSeptember 25, 2005
China Plans to Allow Hong Kong a Bigger Voice in Choosing Its Leaders
By KEITH BRADSHER

HONG KONG, Sept. 24 - In the summers of 2003 and 2004, hundreds of thousands of protesters filled the streets here to call for the direct election of Hong Kong's chief executive and the entire legislature. But the demand was quickly ruled out by the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress, China's rubber-stamp parliament.

Now, with unexpected support from Beijing, the government here is preparing to move a step closer to fully democratic representation with an election plan to be announced next month.

The proposal involves giving a greater role to neighborhood councilors - most of whom are elected by Hong Kong voters - in choosing the chief executive and 6 of the 70 members of Hong Kong's legislature, the chairmen of the three main political parties here said in separate interviews.

All three chairmen voiced qualified support for the outlines of the plan, while saying that they wanted to see the final details.

The two parties that have traditionally backed the Hong Kong government - the pro-business Liberal Party and the pro-Beijing Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, or D.A.B. - had both advocated more restrictive plans for constitutional changes that would have guaranteed more influence for their politicians.

The government's plan "is not our first choice, but we could live with that," said James Tien, the chairman of the Liberal Party, in an interview on Thursday at the harbor-front offices of his family's real estate holding company.

Ma Lik, the chairman of the D.A.B., said Wednesday that the plan was risky for his party and the Chinese leadership because it made it theoretically possible for a pro-democracy majority to be elected in the Legislative Council here. But, he added, "it's obvious that Beijing gave the green light" for Chief Executive Donald Tsang to proceed with the complex plan.

Lee Wing-tat, the chairman of the Democratic Party, said in an interview last week that depending on the details of the plan, his party might support it. Democracy advocates make up a little more than two-fifths of the legislature, and that gives them a veto for any plan for electoral changes, which requires the support of two-thirds of the legislature for approval.

Mr. Lee said his party remained concerned that the executive branch, led by Mr. Tsang, chooses 102 of the 529 neighborhood councilors in Hong Kong. The appointed members are mostly business leaders who tilt toward Beijing.

The Democratic Party wants the appointed councilors excluded from selecting any members of the legislature or the chief executive; the D.A.B. and the Liberal Party want the appointed councilors included.

Raymond Tam, principal assistant secretary for constitutional affairs, declined to comment on the electoral plan, but he did say that the government intended to move toward "the ultimate aim of universal suffrage in a gradual and orderly manner," and wanted to make the chief executive and legislative council more representative. Many proponents of greater democracy are disappointed that the proposed changes do not go further. "This is a few more bones for the dog, but the dog is still on the leash," said Shaw Sin-ming, a local political commentator.

In a further attempt to woo democrats, Beijing has invited all 60 members of the legislature here to visit nearby mainland Chinese cities on Sunday and Monday. It will be the first time that many pro-democracy lawmakers will have been allowed across the border since the Tiananmen Square killings on June 4, 1989.

The legislature here has 30 members selected by the public through direct elections and the rest chosen by so-called functional constituencies, with one seat allocated to the territory's banks, another seat to the territory's lawyers and so forth. Most of the functional constituencies represent pro-Beijing groups.

The Basic Law, Hong Kong's miniconstitution, allows for the possibility of having all members directly elected beginning with the next elections in 2008. But the Standing Committee in Beijing ruled this out in April last year, requiring that if any directly elected seats were added then an equal number of functional constituencies would have to be added as well.

The broad expectation after that ruling had been that the government here would create five new functional constituencies that would mostly be safe seats for Beijing's defenders.

But the prospect of safe functional constituency seats set off a bitter struggle among many pro-Beijing factions that wanted their own seats, while democracy advocates vowed to vote against any such plan. Mr. Ma said Beijing officials had supported the district councilors plan because it would avoid conflicts among pro-Beijing groups and would be easier to pass in the legislature.

The three party chairmen, all of whom have been consulted at length by the Hong Kong government, said the new plan called for district councilors to elect the occupants of all five new functional constituency seats, in addition to the one functional constituency seat already chosen by the district councilors. The five directly elected seats will also be added.

There are currently 800 members - including 42 of the district councilors - of the Election Committee, which chooses the chief executive. Under the new plan, all district councilors would join the Election Committee along with several hundred representatives of business, professional groups and grass-roots organizations, doubling the total membership to 1,600.

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