Hong Kong Holds its Breath

Hong Kong's residents used to be branded as "apolitical." But that description hardly seems appropriate nowadays. Since turning out to rally in record numbers on the anniversary of the handover to China in 2003, hundreds of thousands of Hong Kong citizens have taken peacefully to the streets on various occasions to protest government decisions and demand political reform.

But China's government clings to the belief that Hong Kong's people are not ready for democracy. In April 2004, China's legislators ruled out universal suffrage in Hong Kong's 2007 election of its chief executive, as well as for its 2008 Legislative Council election. They acknowledged that under the city's special constitution, the Basic Law, these elections could be the first opportunities for the territory to choose its representatives according to the principle of "one person, one vote." But they expressed concern that major reform could undermine political stability and economic development.

Currently, all eyes in China are on Hong Kong's upcoming legislative election on September 12, which will indicate to Hong Kong's government and to China's leaders what people think about the pace and direction of reform. A high turnout in favor of pro-democracy candidates is expected, although this won't guarantee them a majority in the legislature because of Hong Kong's unusual political structure. For this month's election, Hong Kong's 3.2 million registered voters can elect only 30 of the 60 seats.

The pro-democracy camp is likely to win 22 seats of those 30 seats, which are based on five large geographical constituencies. The other 30 seats, however, are chosen through functional constituencies, which represent specific interests, such as banks, insurance companies, stockbrokers, chambers of commerce, and transport operators. Only 199,000 voters, some of them representatives from corporations, elect the legislators who fill these seats.