For the first time since China's communist revolution, a pro-democracy candidate in an area under Beijing's control appears likely to compete in a contest for high political office.
Alan Leong is virtually certain to lose the March race for chief executive of Hong Kong, and the election itself will be a far cry from international standards of democracy. But pro-democracy forces in the former British protectorate had a strong showing Sunday in a vote to choose Hong Kong's equivalent of the electoral college and are taking the results as a victory.
"The people in Hong Kong seem to have spoken very clearly and loudly," Leong said Monday, hours after voting results appeared to show that he had sufficient support to take on Donald Tsang, the incumbent, in March. "Certainly, I'm encouraged by the results."
He is, however, under no illusion that he has a chance of winning. Tsang, Beijing's choice for the job in 2005, is seeking a full five-year term. He is a fairly popular figure whose public approval rating was just under 60% in an October poll.
In addition to Tsang's popularity, the election process makes the incumbent hard to beat. Under rules imposed after Britain agreed to hand Hong Kong over to China in 1997, there is no direct vote for top political office. Instead, in a system that seems designed to defy comprehension, dozens of business, academic and social welfare groups get to pick representatives to an 800-member committee that then selects the chief executive.
Lawyers pick a slate of electors, as do financial services managers, tourism professionals, college professors -- even caterers have their slate. Some slates are much larger than others. Altogether, about 200,000 of Hong Kong's 7 million people are eligible to vote -- although very few of them do.
"It's a very interesting and actually very confusing situation, I must admit," said Peter T.Y. Cheung, head of the political science department at the University of Hong Kong.
To be nominated to run for chief executive, a candidate must have the support of at least 100 of the 800 electors. Cheung said it appeared that the forces supporting Leong had won 114 seats Sunday and also had support from 20 to 30 members of Hong Kong's legislative council, who automatically get seats on the election committee. That gives him a "high probability" of being nominated, Cheung said.
Others were less cautious.
"He should have no difficulty," said Anthony Cheung Bing-leung, a professor of public administration at the City University of Hong Kong and founding chairman of SynergyNet, a pro-democracy organization.
Voter turnout Sunday, 27% in preliminary tallies, was a record for such contests, and nearly double the turnout in the last race. Leong said that demonstrated excitement about the prospect of a contested election.
Although the first election for chief executive of Hong Kong was contested, this will be the first time -- in Hong Kong or anywhere else under the control of China's Communist Party -- that a pro-democracy candidate has run for such a significant post.
China runs Hong Kong as a semiautonomous region under a "one country, two systems" concept. Hong Kong residents enjoy greater civil liberties than citizens on the mainland, but China is not ready to let them choose their leaders.
Leong, a lawyer and local legislator who is the favorite of the two main pro-democracy parties, said the vote sent two messages to China's leaders: "One, the people of Hong Kong want a competitive election for chief executive in March, and second, the votes cast suggest the desire for a quicker pace of democratization in Hong Kong."
Peter Cheung said the race would be "a good test of whether Beijing wants Hong Kong to have genuine progress toward a more genuine form of democracy." A perfectly safe test, he added, "because there's absolutely no danger for Donald Tsang."
Tsang, who was initially elected to finish the term of his predecessor, who resigned, may actually benefit from a challenge, the analysts said. A victory over Leong would give him more credibility than he would have after an uncontested election.
"Even if we were to have a real election, I don't think Donald would lose," Peter Cheung said. "He has been able to demonstrate his independence from Beijing, he has a proven track record as an administrator.... People in Hong Kong are very pragmatic."