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Beijing Limits Hong Kong Electoral Reforms - 2004-02-11

Hong Kong's second-ranking official has returned from Beijing with indications that China will not go along with demands for greater democracy in the territory. The territory's largest pro-democracy coalition feels it has been sidelined in the political debate.

Hong Kong Chief Secretary Donald Tsang led a delegation to Beijing early this week for three days of talks with Chinese leaders on the territory's political development.

In recent opinion polls, Hong Kong residents have shown a strong preference for direct election of the territory's chief executive and its Legislative Council. Mr. Tsang told legislators he conveyed the opinions of the Hong Kong public to Beijing.

But Mr. Tsang said he was told that Hong Kong would not be able to introduce electoral reforms, without the consent of Beijing. He said Hong Kong Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa and the legislature must reach a consensus with Beijing about when and how direct elections can be held.

Even before Mr. Tsang spoke, China's official Xinhua news agency quoted Chinese officials as saying Hong Kong must be governed by local people "with patriots as the main body."

While the term "patriots" was not defined, people like Joseph Cheng, of the rights group Power for Democracy, saw it as meaning those with a strong allegiance to Beijing.

Mr. Cheng, like other pro-democracy activists, reacted with disappointment to Mr. Tsang's report. He says the fear is that Beijing will listen only to those voices it wants to hear. "The pro-democracy movement in the territory is quite worried," he said. "There is a concern that the Chinese authorities may adopt the two usual tactics, namely … delaying tactics and claiming the society is rather divided on its view on political reform."

Calls for a greater democracy have been mounting here since last July, when hundreds of thousands of residents took to the streets to protest controversial anti-subversion laws.

At the same time, they called for the resignation of Chief Executive Tung, blaming him for ambiguous and ineffective policies and demanded universal suffrage at the next elections in 2007. But remarks by Chinese academics since then have indicated that Beijing intends to keep control over who is elected to the top offices in Hong Kong, and how.

Hong Kong has been guided since 1997, when it reverted from British to Chinese sovereignty, by the "one country, two systems" rule, which allowed it to keep its existing political, legal and capitalist economic systems.

But the Chinese news agency, in its report on Mr. Tsang's visit to Beijing, indicated that "one country" took precedence over "two systems."