It’s a slow start this year for elections, with not much on the calendar until late March. But one of the more interesting ones will be the election on 25 March for chief executive in Hong Kong.

Not because there is any doubt about the result: incumbent Donald Tsang will be comfortably re-elected. Nor is it any real test of Tsang’s popularity, since the election is not by popular vote, but by a gerrymandered 800-member electoral college, the “election committee”, in which Beijing’s supporters have a solid majority.

But the idea of a contest is news in itself. Tsang’s original election, like that of his predecessor Tung Chee Hwa, was unopposed, since no-one else was able to attract the required support of 100 members of the election committee required for nomination.

Hong Kong’s pro-democracy forces, however, made gains at the last election to the committee, and as a result it was announced yesterday that Alan Leong of the Civic Party has received 111 nominations and will therefore be on the ballot paper alongside Tsang.

So far, the 1997 change of sovereignty has made little difference to Hong Kong. I spent a few days there last month, and found the signs of Beijing’s control to be few and far between: media freedom remains unchallenged, and political debate is robust. But the lack of democratic legitimacy for government is a problem that needs to be addressed.

China’s rulers understand the importance of the Hong Kong experiment, and although they continue to block any move to universal suffrage, either for the chief executive or the legislature, they seem to accept that things will eventually move in that direction. If they can somehow secure a sympathetic government in Hong Kong with a democratic mandate, it may make them more willing to attempt the same trick in China proper.

There is little doubt that China’s transition to democracy – whether it be sudden or gradual, peaceful or traumatic – will be one of the biggest international stories of the next half century. A strong performance next month by Alan Leong would be another reminder that democratic aspirations cannot be bottled up forever.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
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