HK vote restricted to 800

Rowan Callick
China correspondent, The Australian
March 24, 2007

THE leadership of one of the world's wealthiest and best-educated communities, Hong Kong's 7million people, will be decided this weekend by 800 voters, largely from business.
Hong Kong's tiny electorate will cast its first ballot for the top job of chief executive, a title reflecting the view of the Chinese Government that it is essentially an "economic city".
The vote will take place in an exhibition centre at the airport on the edge of Lantau island -- handily remote from potentially rancorous population centres and easily secured against potential protesters.

The winner of the vote is already known, because of the published allegiances of a large majority of the electorate -- it will be the incumbent, Donald Tsang, a suave 62-year-old lifetime public servant.

But his opponent, lawyer Alan Leong, from the Civic Party, is also claiming a victory of sorts because of the debate the contest has generated over his key platform: introducing universal suffrage for the election of the chief executive and the legislature, or parliament.

The extent to which this notion troubles China's leaders is indicated by the ban in the mainland -- which took back Hong Kong's sovereignty from former colonial power Britain 10 years ago this July 1 -- on media coverage of the courteous and intelligent television debate between Mr Tsang and Mr Leong.

During the campaign, Mr Tsang has committed himself in general terms to resolving the issue of universal suffrage during his next five-year term, rather than leaving it to his successors.

At his final media briefing, he pledged to produce a program that would win the backing of at least 60 per cent of Hong Kongers -- who consistently poll overwhelmingly for universal suffrage, while also approving Mr Tsang's administration.

The Hong Kong Government is basking in an economic boom. Growth was at 6.8per cent last year and 4.5per cent this year. This has been driven by the special administrative region's enmeshment with the increasingly prosperous People's Republic of China, especially by the finance sector, reinforced by Chinese state-owned corporate listings and by millions of Chinese tourists.

The Chinese media have scarcely covered the election, mostly dismissing Mr Leong as "opposing for the sake of it". The China News Service said: "Mr Tsang is profoundly experienced in administration, his achievements are obvious. He is the most suitable candidate."

The agency described his performance in the TV debate as "practical, reasonable and sincere", reporting that opinion polls show he is backed by 75per cent of the population.

Analysts say the official Chinese media are unable to provide more extensive coverage because of concern this would arouse expectations in the rest of the country, where a public policy debate and apparently free vote, even by such a "selectorate", are impossible.

And the support of China's leadership for Mr Tsang has been unequivocal.