PARIS -- Hong Kong's Sept. 17th vote for democracy -- in the first free election in Hong Kong history -- was a blow to Beijing and a rebuke to London, the capitals in charge of Hong Kong's future.
China's rulers were humiliated. They had exercised great pressure on Hong Kong's population of six million to elect Beijing's friends and agents to a new legislature charged with governing the colony until its scheduled takeover by China from Britain in July 1997.
This is a free legislature, set up by Chris Patten, a controversial British reformist governor-general, who has gone against much British as well as Chinese opposition in giving the people of Hong Kong a truly democratic voice in their affairs -- even if only for the next 22 months. From 1842 until this year Hong Kong has been governed from London without excessive attention to local opinion.
Ballot box rout
Beijing's candidates were routed in last week's vote. The head of the pro-Beijing ''Democratic Alliance'' and his two lieutenants were all defeated by the genuinely democratic Democratic Party, which won three times as many legislative seats as the pro-Beijing camp.
Since China takes over the colony in less than two years, the Democrats' victory would seem futile. It nonetheless is a slap not only to Beijing but also to all of those, in the Foreign Office in London, and elsewhere in the West and in Asia, who have said that the people (and capitalists) of Hong Kong must accommodate the Chinese and prepare to lose the freedom they now possess.
China's government has, of course, promised that Hong Kong will have a special status in China after its annexation, but no one can seriously believe that China will tolerate any significant degree of political independence.
Hong Kong's future special status (''One Country, Two Systems,'' according to the official slogan) is conceived as a device to keep the economy of Hong Kong thriving by convincing foreign investors that nothing bad will happen to them under Beijing's rule. What will happen to the citizens of Hong Kong, of course, is another matter.
The Hong Kong vote was a brave one, since the democratic leaders and activists of the colony know very well what they may face when China does take over. Business leaders and Hong Kong investors have already mostly made their own provisions against the future by buying Canadian, Australian, American or British passports, or otherwise arranging their retreat to safer ground. The mass of those who voted against Beijing in this election have no such escape.
Many of these voters were until 1989 prepared to go along with the Chinese takeover, hoping that this would produce practical compromises in which their own lives would not be too gravely affected. The sudden rise of a democracy movement in Hong Kong was caused by the Tiananmen Square affair in Beijing in 1989.
The Chinese Communist authorities' cruel attack on democratic student forces shocked Hong Kong, the young in particular, who saw in Tiananmen Square evidence of what could happen to them after July 1997.
Hong Kong's is a very strange story indeed. It has never been clear why Britain should be so eager to give it back. The island of Hong Kong is legally British territory. Colonial territory, admittedly; it was ceded by China, by treaty, under duress, in 1842, and the adjacent Kowloon peninsula was acquired in the same manner in 1860. The so-called New Territories were leased for 99 years in 1898.
It is the New Territories' lease which ends in 1997, not Britain's title in international law to Hong Kong and Kowloon. There are many practical as well as moral reasons to return the colony as a whole to China. But there also are political and moral objections to this, so long as China is governed by a dictatorship making totalitarian claims upon the Chinese people. It is hard not to see Hong Kong's fate as another consequence of that curious collapse of national will which occurred in Britain after the country's expenditure of defiance and pride in the second world war.
Blow to Communists?
However, the future of Hong Kong may prove a great deal more interesting than Beijing would like. China itself now has what some observers call the most corrupt government in its history, ideologically exhausted, much of its political and military apparatus out of central control.
In conditions like these, annexing rich, sophisticated, economically powerful Hong Kong, where a vigorous minority of the people is committed to democratic values, and already defies China's leaders, could prove an important blow to the Communists' weakening authority.
All-Chinese democracy is improbable in China's foreseeable future, but the sterile and repressive system that now exists cannot last, and Hong Kong's annexation may contribute to its demise.
William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.