Pro-China Fervor Shows Up in Hong Kong Elections

Since Hong Kong was handed back to China by the British in 1997, politics here has been defined by a push and pull between pro-communist and pro-Capitalist factions.

Spooked by human rights atrocities like the Tiannanmen Square massacres on the mainland and by the prospect of being subsumed by communist China, a deep-rooted suspicion of Beijing and its influence on local politics has haunted Hong Kong for the past decade.

But while capitalist Hong Kong has not altered much in character since the handover, China has changed radically. The country has opened up enormously to foreign investment and influence. Its economy has grown voraciously — it’s soon set to outpace the U.S., according to many economists’ predictions.

So, as China’s particular brand of communism is diluted, the dichotomies that have dominated the political landscape in Hong Kong have begun to appear more and more outdated.

This all became startlingly clear this summer when the Olympics became a showcase for the new China.

And the event has served to spark a relatively new emotion in Hong Kong — pride. The Olympics went over without a hitch and the Chinese team performed well, bringing home more gold medals, at 51, than even the United States. The success has sent a wave of national pride across China, which has overflowed into Hong Kong.

This week, those 51 gold medalists arrived on a celebratory state trip to Hong Kong. They were met by choirs of singing schoolchildren at the airport and were cheered from function to function across the city.

The timing is opportune — some would even say strategic.

Yesterday, Hong Kong went to the polls to elect a new legislative council in what has been the most fiercely contested race since the 1997 handover.

The 60-seat council is an illustration of the truncated democracy that exists in Hong Kong: Only half its seats can be filled by popular vote; the other half are filled by appointment by a range of “interest groups,” many of which are controlled by Beijing.

But even within the popular vote, critics are saying that the Olympic team’s arrival was a Trojan horse from Beijing — a bid to curry pro-China favor among the people — in the run up to the elections.

Indifference to the pan-democrats — the pro-democracy, pro-business opposition bloc made up of the Democratic party, Civic party and other groups — is at a high here following blunders and failure by Donald Tsang, the territory’s chief executive, to deliver on his promises. In the meantime, China last year issued a timetable for democratic reform in Hong Kong, and a plan for universal suffrage by 2017. Such measures somewhat quieted the traditional war cry of the pan-democrats.

The visiting medalists’ charm may well have moved voters over to support more pro-China candidates for the council.

But regardless, the pan-democrats won 22 seats of the 60-seat legislature, just one seat more than the requisite quota for veto power, in a political system they see as habitually manhandled by Beijing.

The real story goes beyond the elections to the gradual change in the political playing field between Hong Kong and Beijing.

The Olympics has overhauled China’s world image for the better and although this is unlikely to topple the political order here tomorrow, all this positive PR is redrawing the lines of Hong Kong politics. There is less good versus evil. Things are not so black and white any more. In post-Olympics Hong Kong, gray abounds.

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