Hong Kong's Tsang Pins His Reputation on TV Debate Over Pace of Democracy

Photographer: Jerome Favre/Bloomberg

Hong Kong chief executive Donald Tsang. Close

Hong Kong chief executive Donald Tsang.

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Photographer: Jerome Favre/Bloomberg

Hong Kong chief executive Donald Tsang.

Hong Kong Chief Executive Donald Tsang tonight faces off in a televised debate with opposition lawmaker Audrey Eu over China’s plans for changes to the city’s electoral system in 2012.

The debate with the pro-democracy leader is unlikely to win over any of the 23 legislators who vowed to block the proposals, and may be aimed more at salvaging Tsang’s reputation with the central government in Beijing, said Alan Leong, a lawmaker in Eu’s party.

“Beijing is evidently not willing to give genuine and true universal suffrage to Hong Kong,” said Leong. “The purpose of the debate is for Donald Tsang to demonstrate to Beijing that he has done his utmost to get the 2012 package through.”

Eu’s pro-democracy group argues that China’s package doesn’t go far enough to deliver full democracy and is stacked in favor of business groups dominating the so-called functional constituencies that make up half the 60 seats in the Legislative Council.

LegCo is to vote June 23 on the proposal, which would see the number of lawmakers increased by 10. Five would be directly elected and five would represent functional constituencies. The number of Beijing appointees who elect the chief executive would be increased from 800 to 1,200.

Tsang wants “to let the people have a chance to hear the arguments on both sides and come to an informed decision,” his spokesman Andy Ho said in an e-mail.

Public Protest

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 decimated tourism.

Tsang’s own popularity has been slipping amid the wrangle over elections, polls show.

On June 4, about 113,000 people attended a candlelight vigil to mark the 21st anniversary of the crackdown on pro- democracy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square, the largest number since 1989 according to police estimates.

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 “deep-rooted contradictions in Hong Kong.”

Beijing’s Timetable

One of those contradictions is the “one country, two systems” formula struck when Britain handed the territory back to China in 1997. While Hong Kong has multiple political parties and more civil liberties than in mainland China, the timetable for greater democracy was set by the National People’s Congress Standing Committee in Beijing.

Eu is calling for universal suffrage in 2012, five years earlier than China’s plans for letting the public vote for the chief executive and eight years before planned direct elections of all LegCo members.

Twenty-three of the 60 LegCo members have already said they’ll oppose the 2012 package, which needs a two-thirds majority to pass, unless China makes concessions.

While the city’s lawmakers discuss issues ultimately decided in Beijing, a growing number of Hong Kong’s 7 million people are expressing frustration at issues such as growing income inequality and air pollution.

“We are structured not like a city, but like a country,” said Christine Loh, Chief Executive Officer of Hong Kong-based think tank Civic Exchange. “All the stuff relating to city planning, city design, city transport and things concerning public health, dealing with markets, public space and gardens, heritage preservation doesn’t dovetail very well.”

Unsatisfied Citizens

Results of a random survey of 934 households conducted by the Hong Kong Transition project between June 4 and June 14 indicate a majority of the respondents “express dissatisfaction with the Chief Executive’s performance,” said Michael DeGolyer, a professor of government and international studies at Hong Kong Baptist University, who heads the study.

Sixty-three percent of respondents favored the abolition of functional constituencies representing key industries such as banking, law and manufacturing. That’s up from 55 percent of those polled from May 6 to May 15.

“A lot of people are connecting the business domination of the functional constituencies with unfair policies they are experiencing,” said DeGolyer.

The number of people living in poverty in Hong Kong in the first nine months of last year rose 19 percent, the South China Morning Post reported May 12, citing government data.

Record Pollution

Pollution in Hong Kong soared off the scale on March 22 as winds from sandstorms in northern China carried particles to Hong Kong. The air quality had never been so poor.

The government denied the democracy debate is distracting efforts in other areas. “The electoral problems are the most pressing,” said Donald Lam, a spokesman for Tsang’s office. “It doesn’t mean the government is ignoring other problems.”

In March, Secretary for the Environment Edward Yau said Hong Kong may accelerate replacement of old buses, change transit routes and set up low-emission zones to cut pollution.

Still, it will take almost a decade to eliminate outdated buses from the city’s roads, he said.

“Our toxic air is the most damning symptom of our present political system,” said Joanne Ooi, chief executive officer of independent advocacy group Clean Air Network. “Although the public near unanimously supports the aggressive clean-up of our air, the government has consistently failed to act.”

Editors: Ben Richardson, Dirk Beveridge.

To contact the reporter on this story: Frederik Balfour in Hong Kong at fbalfour@bloomberg.net

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