China reacted bitterly Monday to the losses suffered by pro-Beijing candidates in Hong Kong's most democratic elections, reiterating its threat to nullify the legislature when it resumes sovereignty in 1997.
Sunday's Legislative Council elections were "unfair and unreasonable," said the official New China News Agency, adding that it will be "impossible" for the newly elected lawmakers to continue their terms after China recovers the territory in 1997.
The voting showed sweeping support for pro-democracy candidates, who won 23 of 60 seats, and little backing for politicians linked with China, who won only eight. The pro-business Liberal Party took 10 seats, and the remainder were spread among a range of independents.
Beijing had hedged its bets in the race, indirectly backing more than a dozen candidates despite its threat to throw even its own people out of office in 1997 to install a legislature entirely of its own choosing. Those in the pro-China camp had touted their connections with Beijing, saying the new ruler would treat the territory more favorably if Hong Kong's people demonstrated their willingness to cooperate.
But voters resoundingly rejected that option, deciding instead to stand up to Beijing and to perceived threats to the territory's freedoms.
"Everyone has to recognize that Hong Kong has expressed its views about the present and the future with great clarity and, I'm sure, great conviction," said Hong Kong's governor, Chris Patten. He had one message Monday for his Chinese counterparts: "Trust the people of Hong Kong."
Although the election evolved into a referendum on Chinese rule, substantive issues remain. Indeed, on Monday--the day the election results were tallied--the government announced a surge in the British territory's unemployment rate. The government says 3.5% of the working-age population in this economic dynamo of 6 million people now is looking for work.
That issue is sure to get the immediate attention of newly elected politicians, particularly those from the pro-democracy parties that swept the elections. Employment is a populist issue; most Hong Kong people want fewer migrant laborers employed in the colony.
A campaign staple of some Democratic Party candidates was the pledge to "keep foreign workers out of Hong Kong," aimed at fears that low-cost Chinese laborers will come pouring over the border after 1997 to grab Hong Kong jobs. But economists say that the slogan misses the reality that most of Hong Kong's unemployment results from a lack of trained service-industry workers, not an oversupply of low-wage labor.
After the dust settles, the new legislature will have to get down to the business of governing the territory in its final days before the transfer of authority. Although he champions the democratic process, Patten may find the new council difficult to work with. In the past, a third of the body was appointed by the governor and usually acted as a rubber stamp.
But the Democrats, once allies of the governor, led a no-confidence resolution against Patten in the last session, charging that he was making too many compromises with Beijing.
To complicate Patten's last days as Hong Kong's last governor, China plans to announce his successor and a provisional legislature next year, effectively turning him into a lame-duck leader and second-guessing the elected council.
"This will be an administration-in-waiting, reducing the Hong Kong government to a shadow," warned Emily Lau, an independent legislator elected Sunday.