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Rare Hong Kong Debate Attracts Big Audience

  • Ivan Broadhead

Hong Kong Chief Executive Donald Tsang took on one of his most senior opponents from the pro-democracy camp in a bold, but ill-conceived television debate.

The key topic of the debate was the plan for changes to the city's electoral system in 2012.

Chief Executive Tsang argued that the proposal to change the way Hong Kong elects lawmakers and the chief executive in 2012 would move the city along the path to full democracy, accusing his opponent, pro-democracy leader Audrey Eu, of trying to stall the plan.

Eu responded saying she would "rather stand still than take a step backward."

Many people in Hong Kong thought Donald Tsang was unwise to challenge leading democrat and renowned lawyer Eu on live television.

Among them was Martin Lee, founder of the Hong Kong Democratic Party:

"I couldn't believe Donald would pick on Audrey. But I think this will go down well in history: the first time a chief executive has picked on a leader of the opposition on a sensitive point in a public debate," he said.

A former British colony, Hong Kong has retained a considerable degree of political independence since China resumed sovereignty in 1997. However, only half the city's 60-seat legislature is democratically elected, the remainder is appointed by broadly pro-Beijing special interest groups.

Bowing to public demand for reform, Tsang in mid-April proposed increasing the number of directly-elected legislators and expanding the 800-member pro-Beijing committee that appoints the chief executive.

The package is due to be voted on by the legislature next Wednesday. Democratic politicians were positioned to reject the reforms saying they do not go far enough and and are stacked in favor of business groups.

Challenging Eu to an unprecedented television debate, Tsang hoped to swing public support his way by portraying the democrats as obstructionist; willing to put their political agenda above the public's wish to see at least incremental progress on the path to full democracy.

Francis Moriarty is senior political correspondent at Radio Television Hong Kong:

"Hong Kong has been stuck in a deadlock on constitutional reform for at least five years, since the last package was voted down. If this package is voted down, we're stuck for another five years. People want universal suffrage, and it's clear a majority would like it now. So will this debate in any ways move things forward? If it does, that's the win. If it doesn't, that's the lose," said Moriarty.

Preparation for the debate galvanized the democracy movement. Government ministers sent to promote Tsang's proposals at events around the city were overwhelmed by democratic activists mobilized via social media.

Last night, hundreds gathered in central Hong Kong singing protest songs and cheering Eu on her way to the debate venue. A 20-year-old student, who gives his name only as Victor, was among them:

"People, they hate the government now, the China government [too]. The China government does not want Hong Kong to have democracy. They want to have policy power in China; they want to control Hong Kong. I wish Hong Kong could choose its own chairman," said Victor.

Government-initiated rules prohibited the public from entering the debate chamber and press access was also severely restricted, fostering considerable ill-will towards Tsang before the debate had even begun.

In a tense and occasionally hostile encounter, the stolid chief executive, whose eyes never strayed far from his script, reassured viewers that his reforms represent incremental steps towards the universal suffrage they so crave.

Eu, dressed in a red Chinese-cut jacket, responded by accusing Tsang of selling "regressive" policies. She demanded a clear road map to "genuine universal suffrage", not "promises written in water."

The first post-debate opinion poll records Eu as the outright winner, and suggests opponents to Tsang's reforms are now approaching a clear majority.

At least three democrats in the legislature would have to vote with the government if Tsang is to achieve the required two-thirds majority that would see his electoral reform package succeed next week.

On the back of his poor performance in the debate, and without additional, more extensive reform proposals rapidly being sanctioned by Beijing, Moriarty, does not see that switch happening. However, the mere fact the debate took place is remarkable, he said:

"To be arguing the future of democracy, this is unique inside China. It's not just these 7 million people in Hong Kong and their future. That would be important enough. It's what this augurs for future relations between the mainland and Taiwan, and also future possibilities for the development of China itself," said Moriarty.

Tsang's predecessor Tung Chee-hwa stepped down from his post in 2005, more than two years early, after a botched attempt to push through separate China-sponsored constitutional changes sparked street protests and a deadly virus harmed tourism.

Chinese President Hu Jintao in December told Tsang to "handle constitutional development issues properly to ensure social harmony." Premier Wen Jiabao urged him to resolve the "deep-rooted contradictions in Hong Kong."