Hong Kong suffrage

December 26, 2005

It is obviously very tempting to celebrate any successful political action by Hong Kong's dedicated corps of democracy activists. And at first glance, the legislative defeat last week of a Beijing-backed package of modest political reforms was a rare victory for the territory's pro-democracy forces. But it might ultimately prove to be a big setback on the path toward their ultimate goal: universal suffrage.

The defeated reform package, pushed hard by Beijing, would have doubled the size of the appointed committee that selects Hong Kong's chief executive and enlarged its legislature, only half elected by the public. But it did not include a date for moving to direct election of the chief executive, already ruled out by China for the next such vote in 2007.

Minority democrats rejected it as a sham, a dose of democracy instead of the real thing. They were able to block the reform package only because it required a two-thirds majority for approval and they hold more than a third of the seats in the legislature.

Now political tensions again are rising in Hong Kong. Reinvigorated, the territory's democrats are calling on China to allow full suffrage by 2012. Beijing, having made known its strong displeasure with last week's vote, is expected to only harden its stance. Its anointed leader of Hong Kong, Chief Executive Donald Tsang, has already responded by saying he will now focus only on economic, not constitutional, issues for the rest of his term.

The tragedy within this stalemate is Beijing's missed opportunity. With Hong Kong continuing to play such a critical role in the Chinese economy - now believed to have risen to the fourth-largest in the world - its citizens are key players in the global economy. Within that context, a firm timetable for universal suffrage in Hong Kong, however distant in the future, seems ultimately essential to China's overall material progress. And perhaps more than any other step that China's leaders could take, it would likely bind Hong Kong residents more closely than ever to Beijing.

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