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US Calls for Greater Democracy for Hong Kong - 2004-09-24

Bush administration officials and U.S. lawmakers are calling on China to allow greater democratic governance in Hong Kong. In response, Beijing says it opposes what it sees as foreign interference in Hong Kong affairs.

Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific affairs, Randall Schriver, used a congressional hearing this week to urge China to establish what he called a genuine representative government in Hong Kong, as the majority of the Hong Kong people wish.

"We want to see the people of Hong Kong succeed," he said. "We believe the key to that success is Hong Kong continuing to move forward with democratization and reaching the goal of universal suffrage. The political future should rightfully be in the hands of the people of Hong Kong."

Hong Kong's democracy activists have been urging China to allow all Hong Kong voters to directly elect their leader in 2007 and all lawmakers in 2008, the earliest dates possible for such direct elections under the local constitution, known as the Basic Law.

But China last April ruled out direct elections in 2007 and 2008 amid fears that a rapid increase in democracy in Hong Kong could lead to similar demands on the mainland, and Beijing set no timetable for political reform.

U.S. Congressman Jim Leach, an Iowa Republican, says without that timetable, Beijing's commitment to democratic reform lacks clarity and instills uncertainty.

"Democratic frustration continues to build because there is simply no credible reason to thwart the pace of democratic transformation in Hong Kong," said Mr. Leach.

A spokesman for China's Foreign Ministry Friday criticized the comments by Mr. Leach and Secretary Schriver, saying they represented foreign interference in Hong Kong affairs.

In a separate statement, a Hong Kong government spokesman said the territory would undertake electoral changes in line with the local constitution.

While Beijing has ruled out direct elections in the former British colony in the near term, it is appearing more conciliatory toward pro-democracy lawmakers.

In an unprecedented step, China has invited some pro-democracy legislators to Beijing for National Day celebrations next week.

Some observers are not surprised. They believe the Chinese government will be more open to talks with Hong Kong democrats after the resignation of former hardline leader Jiang Zemin from his military post earlier this month.

Mr. Jiang resigned as China's leader in 2002, but he continued to wield influence on Hong Kong policy, and stood firm against calls for greater democracy following mass rallies in July.

Now that Mr. Jiang has left his last official post, many analysts believe President Hu Jintao will embrace a pragmatic approach to Hong Kong.

Veron Hung is a scholar in the China program at the Carnegie Endowment here in Washington. In comments on Capitol Hill this week, she said Mr. Hu would be more open to meeting with Hong Kong democrats than his predecessor.

"The need for Hu to prove his governing ability may bode well for dialogue with Hong Kong democrats," said Ms. Hung. "The absence of such a dialogue would suggest to foreign nations a pessimistic future for political reform in China, intensifying the doubts about China's peaceful rights claim. International criticism of China will likely escalate and overshadow Beijing's 2008 Olympics, which China sees as a milestone to mark the country's rights. All these will not reflect well on Hu's leadership. Therefore he should have an interest in meeting with democrats."

Ms. Hung says if Mr. Hu welcomes dialogue, democrats should seek a united and flexible approach. She warns that the harder democrats push for the early introduction of universal suffrage, the more threatened Beijing will feel, and the more readily it will embrace the basic law, which gives Beijing the ultimate power to determine the city's political future and thus forestall democrats' hopes.