The slow-moving but steady struggle for democracy in Hong Kong—which China promised in 1997 when taking over the territory from the British, but without specifying a date—took a major step forward with today’s swearing-in of newly-elected Anson Chan to the Legislative Council.
Chan’s victory was a major setback, ten years into rule by Beijing, for the Chinese scenario, according to which the city is to be de-politicized gradually and democracy made to disappear while Hong Kong remains an economic center. By electing Chan by 54 percent over her pro-Beijing opponent, the voters of Hong Kong dealt a deadly blow to that plan.
Chan, a highly respected former civil servant born in Shanghai and educated in Hong Kong Catholic schools and at Tufts University in the United States, had avoided politics for years since her resignation in 2001 from the number two post in the first Chinese-run administration. (She had been the first ethnic Chinese to hold the analogous post under the British).
Chan stepped forward, however, when the death of Ma Lik, leader of the pro-Beijing Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB), opened up a key seat in the city’s Legislative Council. Chan’s opponent for this seat was prominent politician Regina Ip.
DAB leader Ma Lik will probably be best remembered for remarks in May of this year dismissing the Tiananmen massacre: “We should not say the Communist Party massacred people on June 4 . . . it was not a massacre.” Attempting to play the anti-foreign card, he added that the government should decide what really happened, not “gweilos” (a derogatory Cantonese word for foreigners).
Ma also criticized democracy, arguing that universal suffrage should not be introduced until 2022, when more Hong Kongers will have gone through “national awareness education.”
Regina Ip had, like Ma, made herself suddenly controversial through comments that were ill-judged at best. In 2002, when China proposed an “Anti-Subversion Law” that would have greatly increased Beijing’s already tight control over Hong Kong, Ip sprang to the defense of the measure, stating “Hitler was elected by the people. But he ended up killing seven million people. This proves that democracy is not a cure-all medicine.” (Faced with massive public protest, Beijing withdrew the legislation the following year.)
So this by-election was a high-stakes grudge match, with plenty of mudslinging, between two of Hong Kong’s most powerful female politicians and between the mutually hostile pro-democracy and pro-Beijing political organizations. It took place against a background of ten years’ tug-of-war, with China seeking to kick democracy into the indefinite future. With pro-Beijing standard bearer Ma Lik now dead and Regina Ip trounced at the polls, Chan’s victory is all the more significant.