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Five Years Later Hong Kong Residents Concerned About Economy, Democracy - 2002-07-03

Five years ago this week, Hong Kong smoothly made the transition from a British colony to a Special Administrative Region of China. Although Beijing has largely stood by promises to allow Hong Kong to retain its autonomy and freedoms, some fear democracy may never flourish in the territory.

Fears that Hong Kong's way of life would change for the worse under Chinese rule have subsided. Yet hopes that Hong Kong would move quickly toward democracy have also faded. As this Hong Kong office worker noted, other than a long economic slump, there have been no big changes, for good or bad, in the city.

"It seems like a colony of China. But I think it takes time because it's just five years. I think what most people are worried about is the economy, actually," the office worker said.

The city is run by a chief executive, former shipping tycoon Tung Chee-hwa. He is chosen by a council of 800 citizens, many of whom are affiliated with Beijing. Under British rule, London named Hong Kong's governor.

While there have been no significant changes, observers said there have been modest revisions that not only erode what democracy there is in the city, but also delay any move toward universal suffrage.

For instance, the government abolished two local councils that set certain public policies. The government said they were an unnecessary layer of bureaucracy. Professor Michael DeGolyer heads the Hong Kong Transition project at the city's Baptist University, which tracks public opinion and political development.

"The Urban Councils and Regional Councils, these were the only bodies in Hong Kong which had independent policy-making power. They also had a very long record of elections going back to 1952. And they were abolished. That has definitely been a step backwards because the only person who can now propose policies is the Chief Executive Tung Chee-Hwa," he said.

Under the Basic Law, Hong Kong's, lawmakers can decide in 2007 whether to review the electoral system, opening the possibility of direct elections for top leaders and legislature. There are some doubts that there will be much progress toward that goal in the meantime.

After the British left, the government adopted a convoluted electoral system for the Legislative Council, Hong Kong's legislature. Under the system, only 24 of 60 lawmakers are directly elected, the rest are either appointed or are elected by small groups of people. Critics have said this system, and a complex voting process in the chamber, mean that pro-democracy lawmakers can rarely sway votes on bills.

Just before starting his second term in office on Monday, Mr. Tung made the most significant modification to Hong Kong's government since the change of sovereignty. He created a new ministerial system, in which he appoints heads of departments, replacing top civil servants.

While Mr. Tung promises the system will make the government more responsive to the public, his critics charge that it undemocratically consolidates executive power.

Martin Lee heads the most prominent pro-democracy contingent in the Legislative Council. "The so-called ministerial system will enable him to make sure all his wishes will be carried out. He will come more and more powerful, he's like a dictator. But unfortunately, he's but a puppet in the eyes of Beijing," Mr. Lee said.

Mr. Tung's supporters argue the administration should avoid further democratization for the time being. James Tien is chairman of the pro-business Liberal Party, which backs Mr. Tung. "We feel that the point on direct election, the general public's view is that, they are not very confident of the point whether a universal-suffrage elected Chief Executive versus the one that is selected now will make a big difference," Mr. Tien said.

Pro-democracy lawmaker Margaret Ng accused Mr. Tung of stalling democratization. She said he has delayed debate on direct elections for the Legislative Council. "I, for one, am very concerned that as China develops toward democracy and becomes a more open society, Hong Kong is heading in an opposite direction," Ms. Ng said.

In truth, the degree of democracy in Hong Kong today is not vastly different from much of Britain's 150 years of rule. It was only in the mid-1990s that the British allowed voters to select all members of the Legislative Council.

And, as even the government's harshest critics admit, there has been no regular, overt interference in the city's affairs by China's central government.

Pro-democracy legislator Martin Lee said people can be confident that Hong Kong is run by Hong Kong people. "One major improvement to Hong Kong is that we're no longer a British colony. It's not a Chinese colony either. We are guaranteed the rule of law and freedoms," Mr. Lee said.

Perhaps the biggest change to Hong Kong since its return to Chinese rule has been in people's expectations. With the rising strength of the middle class, opinion polls show more people want a wider say in policy decisions.

Polls also show the popularity of Hong Kong's chief executive has dwindled; his approval rating has slipped to 33 percent in a poll done in April by the Hong Kong Transition Project.