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Hong Kong TV Election Debate Tests Beijing
Reuters
3/19/2007



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HONG KONG—The two candidates competing to be leader of Hong Kong will face off in a final TV debate on Thursday night, with just over a week left in an election race that has tested the limits of political openness in China.

Alan Leong, who made history by becoming the first-ever opposition candidate to qualify for such an election, is up against Hong Kong's bow-tie wearing incumbent leader, Donald Tsang, the odds-on favourite with strong backing from Beijing.

A 796-seat largely pro-Beijing panel will choose the next Chief Executive on March 25 in a secret ballot, with the former British colony's seven million people having no direct say.

While Leong has almost no chance of winning the election, analysts say his dogged challenge–as highlighted by an accomplished performance in a first debate two weeks ago against his defensive rival–has flustered Beijing.

"I think that the central government is feeling a bit of pressure," said James Sung, a political analyst at Hong Kong's City University.

Hong Kong's election and its televised debates have broken new ground in China, where state leaders brook no dissent and are rarely openly challenged without reprisals, say analysts.

Warning

Senior Chinese officials have reminded Hong Kong that Beijing has the final say over the pace of political reform. Cheng Siwei, vice-chairman of the Chinese parliament, warned on Tuesday: "If Hong Kong spends a lot of time, or all the time, meddling in politics, then certainly it will be marginalised."

Cheng's comments carried added weight as his law-making body has final interpretation power over the city's constitution, which means it has the last word over democratisation.

Despite hopes for a more feisty exchange on Thursday, some say it's unlikely Leong's spirited first performance at the podium would dent Tsang's high popularity ratings, nor would it cause the incumbent to rethink tactics or promise more.

"I don't think Donald (Tsang) will change much. He'll still adopt a passive strategy," said Li Pang-kwong, a political analyst at Hong Kong's Lingnan University. "He doesn't want a confrontation with Alan ... If the debate is too hot, society will go mad. They'll expect more next time," he added.

Chip Tsao, a columnist who will be part of a live TV jury at the debate, said: "The public has seen, more or less, the bottom line."

The first debate was a revelation to many Chinese, who were able to watch the Hong Kong terrestrial TV broadcast uncensored across the border into Guangdong province.

"I liked seeing the two explain their election platforms ... Every society must have competition to be good," said a Guangzhou resident who declined to be named for fear of reprisals.

Thursday's debate, organised by eight broadcasters, will have a public town-hall style audience–not unlike U.S. presidential style debates–with the public able to ask direct questions, a concession not granted before.

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