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China Vows To Dump Newly Elected Hong Kong Council

By Maggie Farley
Los Angeles Times
HONG KONG

China reacted bitterly to the losses suffered by pro-Beijing candidates in Hong Kong's most democratic elections ever, reiterating its threats to nullify the legislature when it resumes sovereignty in 1997.

Sunday's Legislative Council elections were "unfair and unreasonable," said the official Xinhua News Agency on Monday, adding that it is "impossible" for the newly elected lawmakers to continue their terms after China's recovers the territory in 1997.

The voting showed sweeping popular support for pro-democracy candidates, who won 23 of 60 seats, and little backing for politicians linked with China, who won only eight places.

Beijing had hedged its bets in the race, indirectly backing more than a dozen candidates despite its threat to throw even its own people out of office in 1997 to install a legislature entirely of its own choosing. Those in the pro-China camp had touted their connections with Beijing, saying the new ruler would treat the territory more favorably if Hong Kong's people demonstrated their willingness to cooperate.

But voters resoundingly rejected that inducement, opting instead to stand up to Beijing and to perceived threats to the territory's freedoms. "Everyone has to recognize that Hong Kong has expressed its views about the present and the future with great clarity, and I'm sure, great conviction," said Hong Kong's governor, Chris Patten. He had one message for his Chinese counterparts: "Trust the people of Hong Kong," he said Monday.

Although the election evolved into a referendum on Chinese rule, substantive issues remain. Indeed, on Monday - the day the election results were tallied - the government announced a surge in the British territory's unemployment rate. The government says 3.5 percent of the working-age population in this economic dynamo of 6 million people now are looking for jobs.

That issue is sure to get the immediate attention of newly elected politicians, particularly those from the pro-democracy parties that swept the elections. Employment is a populist issue; most Hong Kong people want a reduction in the number of migrant laborers - mainly from China and the Philippines - employed in the colony.

A campaign staple of some Democratic party candidates was to "keep foreign workers out of Hong Kong," aimed at fears that low-cost Chinese laborers would come pouring over the border after 1997 to grab Hong Kong jobs. But economists say, that while popular, the slogan misses the reality that most of Hong Kong's unemployment results from a lack of trained service-industry workers, not an oversupply of low-wage labor.

After the dust settles, the new legislature will have to get down to the business of governing the territory in its final days before the hand over. Although he champions the democratic process, Patten may find the new council difficult to work with. In the past, a third of the body was appointed by the governor and could usually be counted on to act as a rubber stamp.

But the Democrats, once allies of the governor, led a no-confidence resolution against Patten last session, charging that he was making too many compromises with Beijing - failing, for example, to guarantee that Hong Kong's version of the Supreme Court will be independent.

Pro-China legislators and the business lobby - both interested in reducing market-upsetting friction by cooperating with Beijing - make up the balance of the council. Although the governor has ultimate authority and veto power, political analysts warn he must use it sparingly, to avoid setting a iron-handed precedent for Beijing. To complicate Patten's last days as Hong Kong's last governor, China plans to announce his successor and a provisional legislature next year, effectively turning him into a lame-duck leader, and second-guessing the elected council.

"This will be an administration-in-waiting, reducing the Hong Kong government to a shadow," warned Emily Lau, an outspoken independent legislator, who beat her opponent by a wide margin Sunday. It's even worse, she added later, for China to "throw all elected members out of office and replace them with a bunch of handpicked buffoons."