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Hong Kong By-Election Seen as Referendum on Democracy in Former British Colony

Two veteran politicians will compete Sunday in one of Hong Kong's most keenly watched elections since the territory returned to Chinese sovereignty in 1997. Many see the face-off between the two former officials, Anson Chan and Regina Ip, as a referendum on democracy in the former British colony. Claudia Blume reports from Hong Kong.

The by-election for Hong Kong's Legislative Council will fill a seat left vacant by the recent death of Ma Lik, chairman of Hong Kong's largest pro-Beijing political party. Eight candidates are in the running, but Sunday's election is mainly a showdown between two political veterans: former civil servants Anson Chan and Regina Ip.

Pro-democracy campaigners are pushing for Hong Kong's chief executive and all of its legislators to be directly elected by 2012. The central government in Beijing has been reluctant to grant Hong Kong universal suffrage, fearing the territory could become a base for pro-democracy agitation on the mainland.

Ivan Choy is a political scientist at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. He says many people see the election as a symbolic battle over if and when Hong Kong should be allowed full democracy.

"They try to think the election in that way that is Anson Chan represents the universal suffrage in the year 2012, and on the other hand, Regina Ip represents the conservative camp that opposes democratization in Hong Kong," he explained.

Anson Chan, 67, was number two in Hong Kong's administration when it was still a British colony. The popular political figure has embraced the pro-democracy camp's call for direct elections by 2012. Chan says full democracy is a prerequisite for good, transparent government that is accountable to the people.

"If we want all of that then we must move ahead on universal suffrage, which after all is a promise that Deng Xiaoping made to the people of Hong Kong in the Basic Law," she said.

Her opponent is Regina Ip, Hong Kong's former secretary for security. Ip also wants Beijing to announce a timetable for universal suffrage. But the 57-year-old, who is backed by the territory's pro-Beijing camp, thinks many in Hong Kong are uneasy about the prospect of full democracy too quickly.

"For more than 100 years, Hong Kong was basically ruled by a bureaucratic polity, that has worked well," she explained. "And if you give all the power to the people, then that's a radical change. Some people are uncomfortable about that."

Hong Kong, a colony for more than 150 years, was returned to Chinese sovereignty in 1997. Beijing promised Hong Kong autonomy in local affairs and eventual transition to democracy. But so far, only half of the city's legislators are directly elected, and the chief executive is selected by a committee of 800 people, all approved by China's communist leadership.