HONG KONG -- Predicting political outcomes in most parts of the world can be risky, but not in Hong Kong, where Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa has secured a landslide victory for a second five-year term even before the nomination period closed.
Tung, who has the political blessing of Chinese President Jiang Zemin, Premier Zhu Rongji and Vice Premier Qian Qichen, embodies the quip of a former British chief secretary in Hong Kong: "The Chinese have no objection to elections -- provided they know the results beforehand."
Tung obtained 714 written nominations from an election committee of 800 people, most of whom are under the influence of Beijing. When the nomination period closed yesterday, Tung was declared winner of this "election," because no other candidate could garner the 100 nominations required to stand as a candidate. Not only were Hong Kong's people barred from electing their own leader, they were also deprived of their chance to even stand in the election.
Even the privileged 800 members of the election committee did not get to cast a vote on the sole candidate. Instead they had to submit written nominations, effectively turning the nomination process into a political loyalty test rather than a ballot.
The people of Hong Kong, of course, have no illusions about this phony election: A recent public opinion poll showed that only 16.2 percent of the Hong Kong public supports Tung for a second term.
For those in the international community who have not paid much attention to Hong Kong since the 1997 handover from Great Britain to China, Tung's sham election is a reminder that Hong Kong today looks a lot more like China than it should -- or than China assured the world it would.
The changes in Hong Kong have been a slow and steady erosion rather than a single explosion. Our rule of law, press freedom, elected institutions, level economic playing field and free association have all been battered since 1997. And in every case, the prime mover in eroding Hong Kong's bedrock institutions has been Tung Chee-hwa. Whether taking direction from Beijing or anticipating his mentors' preferences, Tung has quashed calls for more democracy and more transparent government policies.
This has been possible because in Hong Kong virtually all power is centralized in the executive branch. Legislators cannot propose bills on government policies without the chief executive's written consent.
During his first five years in office, Tung presented many corrosive initiatives, including the abolition of elected civic councils and the invitation to Beijing to overturn the interpretation of the Basic Law, Hong Kong's constitution, by the highest court.
Perhaps Tung's most important contribution from China's point of view is his willingness to quash all public demand for more democracy. In poll after poll, Hong Kong's well-educated and economically successful population says it wants full democracy, even over Beijing's objections. The people know that accountability -- including the ability to turn elected officials out of office -- is the only sure way to stem any tide toward the sort of corruption and cronyism that characterizes China.
Indeed, the Basic Law sets out a schedule through 2007 for making the legislature more democratic. After that, there is the possibility of electing the chief executive by universal suffrage. But Tung refuses even to start the process of public consultation and debate on this vital topic.
That may be why President Bush's remarks to the Chinese people last month resonated so strongly in Hong Kong. In his speech, broadcast live on mainland television, Bush told Chinese leaders that diversity and dissent should be tolerated and that the rule of law is far better than its ultimate alternative of chaos.
Bush's passionate plea for more democracy and personal freedom on the mainland is something Hong Kong people feel deeply and wish to see, both at home and in mainland China.
I would paraphrase the message Bush and the international community need to carry to Tung and Chinese leaders: "Life in Hong Kong shows that liberty, paired with law, is not to be feared." The world community should have an ongoing interest in preserving Hong Kong's example to China.
There is only one solution that will stop Hong Kong's regression, and that is to let its 6.8 million people elect their chief executive on a one person-one vote basis. For surely the wisdom of their common sense will prevail over the tyrannical instincts of one man.
The writer is chairman of Hong Kong's Democratic Party and a democratically elected member of the Legislative Council.
© 2002 The Washington Post Company