Washington Post



Two Elections

December 23, 2001

AT THE beginning of this month, Taiwan's voters participated in another of the island's now-routine democratic elections, handing a decisive victory in legislative races to the Democratic Progressive Party of President Chen Shui-bian. Just under two weeks later, a very different Chinese electoral event took place in Hong Kong: Tung Chee-hwa, the charmless business tycoon who became chief executive 4 1/2 years ago when the region was taken over by China, announced that he would seek reelection next March. A poll showed that just 16 percent of Hong Kong's 7 million people support his decision, but that doesn't matter; only 800 people hand-picked by the Chinese government are allowed to vote, and Beijing has already announced that Mr. Tung "deserves another term." So far, despite his staggering unpopularity, no one is running against him.

The politics of Hong Kong go far to explain what happened in Taiwan, where Mr. Chen's party for the first time won the largest number of seats in the national legislature despite the fact that the country is suffering through the worst recession in decades. China, which has shunned Mr. Chen, is pressing Taiwan to accept reunification under the slogan of "one country, two systems" -- the same principle that it promised to apply in Hong Kong.

But Mr. Tung's administration, and now his stage-managed reelection, have demonstrated all too clearly that Beijing is not prepared to tolerate the genuine popular democracy of Taiwan, at least in Hong Kong. Which, in turn, explains why Taiwan's voters would ignore their economic troubles and choose the party of Mr. Chen, which advocates Taiwanese independence from China.

China's apologists point out that the city was not a democracy under British rule, and that China has not tampered with its court system and free-market economy. But China promised to allow for a gradual political liberalization in Hong Kong; its charter calls for it to make a decision in 2007 about whether to have a freely elected executive and legislature. If Beijing were to allow the territory to move toward a genuine democracy it would have a far better chance of winning over Taiwan's voters. Instead, it is moving in the opposite direction.

Mr. Tung has proved himself an eager puppet of the Chinese leadership, mimicking its rhetoric about the Falun Gong spiritual movement. Last summer he induced the local legislature to pass a law giving China the explicit authority to remove Hong Kong's executive for any cause -- meaning that Mr. Tung's successors will have little choice but to be puppets, too. And since he will now serve until 2007, Mr. Tung will be able to ensure that the promised decision on the future political system will follow Beijing's script. That China would insist on his "reelection" against the wishes of the overwhelming majority of Hong Kong's people demonstrates what that system is likely to look like. No wonder that a growing number of Taiwan's voters want no part of it.