China suffered a blow to its prestige Sunday when a fierce critic of the mainland government unseated a Beijing-backed former missionary in Hong Kong’s nextto-last election under British rule.
Szeto Wah’s win over Elsie Tu in municipal elections Sunday showed Hong Kong’s Democrats were holding their ground against pro-China politicians as China’s takeover of Hong Kong approaches in 1997.
Szeto, 64, helped found the Democratic Party, the colony’s largest pro-democracy faction, and he often criticizes China’s human rights record.
In contrast, Tu, 81, opposed recent calls for greater democracy and received an invitation from Beijing to act as an adviser in China’s preparations for 1997.
Szeto won 9,175 votes to Tu’s 6,778 in the Kowloon working-class area of Kwun Tong. The contest was watched closely because both candidates are immensely popular and their views toward China so different.
Voter turnout was 25.8 percent, the highest ever for a municipal election. Turnout in the Tu-Szeto contest was 39.4 percent.
Ostensibly, the polls were about choosing who manages parks, stadiums and public toilets. But with 1997 approaching, such issues became entwined in the wider political argument about Hong Kong’s future.
Overall, Szeto’s Democrats won 23 seats, a 64 percent success rate - up from 58 percent in district elections last September - to remain the most popular party.
Their main pro-China rival, the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong, won eight seats, a success rate of 47 percent, 2 percentage points better than in their first electoral foray last year.
Some Democrats lost to pro-China politicians not aligned with the Democratic Alliance. Other seats went to independents and smaller prodemocracy parties.
The Democrats say stronger democratic institutions will ensure local control after China takes over. But the pro-Beijing camp says that will only anger China’s Communists and encourage them to break their promise of a “high degree” of autonomy for Hong Kong after 1997.
Party campaigners offered greetings and handshakes to families, shoppers and old men in Chinese slippers and high-collared jackets who lined up to vote.
Police reported two brawls between supporters of the two rival camps. Four people were slightly injured.
Under rules devised by Gov. Chris Patten against China’s wishes, all municipal councilors were elected Sunday. Previously, some had been appointed.
China responded to Patten’s reforms with vows to disband Hong Kong’s elected bodies in 1997. But Beijing still backed pro-China candidates Sunday, apparently to show that it has support in the colony. Hong Kong’s next elections - for the legislature in September - will be the last under British rule.