Beijing -- When up to 3.7 million Hong Kong voters go to the polls today, they will be participating in the most democratic elections in the colony's 154-year history.
Unfortunately, it may well be the last brush with democracy that most Hong Kongers ever have. Less than two years from now, China takes over the British colony and has vowed to disband the Legislative Council, replacing it with an advisory board filled with people loyal to Beijing.
Even though the council members elected today seem fated not to serve out their four-year terms, the vote is still one of the key milestones before China takes over the British colony on July 1, ++ 1997.
Analysts say that a strong showing by China's critics would lead China to make good on threats to abolish the council, which is Hong Kong's mini-parliament that advises the governor. But if pro-China forces win a sizable number of seats, China could be tempted to retain some council members as advisers and even allow further democratic experiments.
In addition, the newly elected council members will be among the key players who see the colony through the final stage of its handover to China. If they cannot work well with their new masters, Hong Kong's fragile business confidence could be destroyed, badly damaging the economy of one of the world's major trading centers.
"The vote will set the stage for the 1997 transition," said Michael Davis, senior lecturer at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. "It will show if voters still support the democratic movement and whether Beijing has succeeded in scaring away voters."
Famous for their adaptability, Hong Kong residents already seem to be preparing for Chinese rule, as evidenced by voters' support for pro-China forces.
The last election, in 1991, took place in the shadow of the 1989 Tiananmen massacre, when Chinese troops killed hundreds of anti-government protesters in downtown Beijing. The event shocked Hong Kong voters, who elected candidates critical of China in each of the 18 seats open for direct election.
Now, however, pro-China forces have organized themselves into party known as DAB, or Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong. Along with another pro-China party, the Beijing-backed -- and -bankrolled -- forces are expected to enter parliament for the first time, with polls showing them garnering 26 percent of the popular vote.
"It is a reality that Hong Kong has to deal with China over the next year and a half, so it's more realistic to select those who have a good relationship with Beijing," said Shelley Lim, a 42-year-old clerk with a consulting firm in Hong Kong.
Mrs. Lim said she believes that candidates critical of China may be better qualified, but she worries that they will be thrown out the moment Beijing takes over.
Indeed, even if Beijing is happy with the election's outcome and decides to retain some council members, they almost certainly won't be outspoken critics of Beijing, such as Martin Lee, the lawyer who is chairman of the Democratic Alliance.
Still, the alliance is pegged to win 49 percent of the vote, or 11 of the 20 seats up for direct vote. Independent candidates, many of them critical of China, register 18 percent on several opinion polls.
In all, 60 seats will be filled today. In the past, seats were appointed by the governor or elected by narrowly based industrial groups, whose bosses controlled most votes.
In the 1991 elections, however, Britain allowed the 18 directly elected seats that the democrats won.
This year, under further democratic reforms that Beijing adamantly opposes, 20 seats are up for direct vote and the seats elected by industry and trade groups will be open to fairer voting practices. Now, representatives from 30 fields of business will be elected directly by employees, with employers not able to control the vote as easily.
The new process is still loaded against candidates without money or powerful backing. Leung Yiu-chung, for example, a 42-year-old candidate for the seat representing garment and clothing workers, voiced a familiar complaint when he said factory owners barred him from entering the workshops to meet his potential constituents.
"It's hard to spread information," Mr. Leung said, "so you can see that the democracy is still not 100 percent."
Another feature of this election is the voters' preference for bread-and-butter issues over grand themes, such as democracy and human rights. With Hong Kong's unemployment at a record 3.2 percent and its economy feeling the pinch of China's economic slowdown, voters are more concerned with establishing a social security and unemployment insurance system, polls show.
This has worked to favor the pro-China forces, who have mobilized a large pro-Beijing trade union to spread the message that they will try to solve the problems of Hong Kong's ordinary man -- in contrast to the Democratic Alliance's support for the democratic aspirations of the city's upper-middle class.
"People have seen our performance over the past few years and know that we can meet the problems of the working man or woman of Hong Kong," said Chan Yuen-han, a 48-year-old who has worked in the pro-China camp since she was 25.
Although the pro-China parties oppose Gov. Chris Patten and his democratic reforms, advisers surrounding Mr. Patten have told Hong Kong journalists that they would like to see some pro-China politicians in the council. The reason: A council with a majority of democrats might push too hard for more democracy over Britain's final 21 months in power, setting back British goal of better relations with China.
In the end, voter turnout may limit the message that the election sends to Hong Kong's masters in London and Beijing. In 1991, just 39 percent of voters turned out, even though they had the chance to vote in the first direct elections in the colony's history. This year, the result may be even lower as many residents say they can't see wasting time to vote for a parliament that Beijing is going to abolish.
NB Ian Johnson is the Beijing bureau chief for The Baltimore Sun.