Hong Kong's Democrats Are Bucking Tung's Reforms

Pro-democracy activists looked like the big losers in Hong Kong's reversion to Chinese sovereignty on July 1. They were shut out of the Beijing-appointed Provisional Legislative Council (Legco) that rules the newly created Special Administrative Region (SAR). Then, Hong Kong Chief Executive C.H. Tung began chipping away at old laws enshrining civil liberties. And on July 28, three Court of Appeal judges slapped down a challenge to Legco's legality.

But Hong Kong's pro-democracy critics of Beijing and Tung are no longer in retreat. Indeed, getting thrown out of the old Legco seems to have energized them. They have rediscovered the street smarts that helped them wrest concessions from the British. Now they are deploying them to rally public support against Provisional Legco bills.

LIVELY CAMPAIGN. The campaign for Legco elections, due next May or June, has effectively begun and will be a far livelier and more open affair than Beijing planned. "The government is trying to prevent us from having any voice, but public support for us keeps growing," says Democratic Party aide Minky Worden.

Political analysts say the democrats may even be sufficiently strong to win more than 20 of Legco's 60 seats. That would be a slap in the face for the government and Beijing and could cause serious headaches next year. Tung is trying to avoid such pain with a complicated electoral law that severely crimps opponents' chances of winning seats. Plans outlined in June would set at just 20 the number decided by universal suffrage. Another 30 are reserved to professional and corporate voters, with a final 10 appointed by an Election Council. The scheme, say analysts, is designed to limit opponents to as few as 12 seats.

Already, the democrats and their labor union allies are successfully driving a wedge into the pro-Beijing monolith in the Provisional Legco by picking hot-button issues. For example, when Tung tried to get the legislature to annul five laws protecting labor rights, passed in the final session of the pre-handover Legco, opponents organized petitions and a hunger strike. Following their campaign, several of the old laws were upheld, while three relating to the right to organize were simply suspended pending further discussion.

Significantly, the episode prompted many Provisional Legco members to distance themselves from Tung. Legislators--from the pro-communist trade union grouping, the Hong Kong Federation of Trade Unions (FTU), the pro-Beijing Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong (DAB), and some members of the business tycoon-dominated Liberal Party--know they have to face the voters next year. So they don't want to look like mere rubber stamps in the service of Tung and the business leaders in his Cabinet.

Tung's tendency to treat the legislature in cavalier fashion is helping democracy groups widen the nascent split. Since assuming office, he has repeatedly asked Legco members to pass bills on short notice. Recently, for example, he gave them just one day to consider his nomination of 15 Court of Appeal judges.

It's a big turnaround since pre-handover times when Tung regularly admonished critics to "respect the Basic Law," the new Hong Kong's constitution. These days, opponents are throwing his advice back in his teeth as Tung tries to limit voting rights, repeal pre-handover laws, and pass restrictive new immigration laws. "The government has no respect for the Basic Law or even the rule of law, full stop," says ousted Legco democrat Emily Lau, "but next year it will be time for revenge." If voters agree with her, Beijing's promises to give Hong Kong wide autonomy will be put to a severe test next year.

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