With 1997 and China's negotiated takeover of Hong Kong marching across the horizon, the British colony's inhabitants have sent an electoral message to Beijing. It's one the Chinese leaders should listen to, but have already signaled they won't.
In 650 days, Beijing's apparatchiks will take hold of political power in Hong Kong and toss out the Legislative Council that was voted in last Sunday. In that popular election, pro-democracy elements scored heavily. The New China News Agency, whose Hong Kong office is Beijing's de facto embassy, deemed the elections "unfair and unreasonable" and said it would be impossible for the council to exist under Chinese rule.
That last appraisal is true. A legislative body in a territory known for its free-wheeling economy and open society would be a lousy fit with the Beijing model of governance. In forcing Hong Kong into its mold in the years ahead, China surely will stifle the spark that makes the colony so attractive. Despite its on-again, off-again economic reforms, China will never loosen controls sufficiently to let Hong Kong fully breathe and produce.
The Legislative Council is a recent, and belated, creation of the British governors, who will be leaving the bustling territory with a modicum of Western-style representative government. More important, the British leave a tradition of law, which is the foundation of any international business capital. But neither seems likely to survive intact under Communist rule. A pity. Said British Gov. Chris Patten: "Everyone has to recognize that Hong Kong has expressed its views about the present and the future with great clarity. . . ."
Sunday's election pitted the pro-Beijing Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong against the anti-Beijing Democratic Party. The pro-China forces ran what had all the outward appearances of an open, Western-style campaign. Their candidates presented themselves as people who could talk to Beijing. But they came up short.
The Democratic Party and its allies won 23 of 60 seats. The pro-China Alliance and its backers won eight. The pro-business Liberal Party took 10 seats, and the remainder was spread among a range of independents.
The British, who have ruled Hong Kong since 1841, never embraced a precisely democratic model there, but they made the port a great trading center where players, both British and Chinese, shaped government policy with their wealth. The system was representative in its way, and gave Hong Kongers a taste. They want more. Sadly, the odds are against them.