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Tsang vows 'more open' HK stance


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Hong Kong

HONG KONG, China (CNN) -- Hong Kong's Chief Executive-elect Donald Tsang has vowed to deliver a more open and more representative electoral system by the time of the next elections in 2007-08.

But he told CNN on Friday that universal suffrage in Hong Kong was still some way off.

Tsang was declared Hong Kong's next Chief Executive on Thursday in an uncontested leadership race that critics have called a charade.

China's state council, or cabinet, must approve his appointment, a step that will likely happen next week.

Tsang will serve for the next two years, following the resignation in March of Hong Kong's first Chief Executive, Tung Chee Hwa.

In an interview with CNN television on Friday, Tsang said Hong Kong's desired democratic destination of full voting rights for its 6.9 million people was clear, but the timing was not.

"Give us some time. Nobody can pin such a date," he said, noting it had taken the United States several hundred years to reach full democracy.

On Thursday, election officials named the devout Roman Catholic with the British title of "Sir" as the only valid candidate, after he won the bulk of nominations from a 796-member group that chooses the Chinese territory's chief executive.

The former British colony was promised a high level of autonomy for 50 years after it was handed over to China in 1997, but the fact that the people who live in the city still don't get to choose their leader rankles with pro-democracy supporters.

Asked to respond to this, Tsang said Hong Kong's situation in 2005 was "transitional". He said it had started late in the democratic race, having evolved from the colonial era in 1997. And while Beijing was not yet ready for Hong Kong to have universal electoral rights, there would be a more open and representative arrangement by 2007-08.

Tsang said his aim was to start a more effective and harmonious government that maintained economic growth.

He noted Hong Kong had suffered a number of economic setbacks after 1997, including the Asian financial crisis, the collapse of the property and technology bubbles and the SARS health scare.

"People lost their jobs and were unhappy," he said.

Tsang praised his predecessor Tung, saying the former shipping tycoon had done "exceedingly well" in difficult circumstances.

"He went through a very turbulent period," Tsang said.

Tung said on March 10 he was resigning two years before his term was due to expire because of poor health. Tsang then became interim Chief Executive, before resigning last month to contest the nomination.

All Tsang had to do to claim the top spot was to win around 700 nominations from the group of mostly pro-Beijing business and industry leaders, who were given the task of picking their candidate without the freedom of secret balloting.

Tsang's nominations ensured potential rivals did not get the 100 votes they needed to contest in the race, which was set for July 10.

That election day will now be cancelled.

Some commentators have berated Tsang for steamrolling his opponents and giving up the opportunity to debate with them.

"You can call it a farce; it's not an election in the way you know it, but that's Hong Kong, it's very sad," says Emily Lau, a former journalist and pro-democracy lawmaker.

The bowtie-wearing Tsang has worked in government for nearly four decades.

In the view of many observers, Tsang's unpopular predecessor Tung was pushed out by Beijing for what was widely perceived as mismanagement during his eight year tenure. That included his handling of the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis, a proposed anti-succession bill and the deadly SARS epidemic.

While the 60-year-old Tsang worked as No. 2 during Tung's tenure, he has generally escaped criticism, and indeed is very popular among the people who live in this special administrative region on China's southern coast.

Despite some unease in Beijing about his colonial past, the policeman's son who has touted his humble beginnings as a salesman, has the support of 76 percent of Hong Kongers.

"People think he is definitely better than Tung and they at least respect his track record as a long-time civil servant trained by the British," says Willy Lam, a Hong Kong-based China expert.

A key challenge as he takes the helm will be to balance Beijing's need to stop democracy seeping across the border to its 1.3 billion people with Hong Kong's growing calls for political freedom.

While Hong Kongers never had full democracy during 155 years of British rule, they are unhappy they are not seeing the rights they were promised under the "one country, two systems," and have already seen some of them slip away.

Observers have slammed the interpretations Beijing has made on Hong Kong's mini-constitution, the Basic Law, saying the "sloppy" rulings have damaged the law in this bustling entrepot, which is ranked the freest economy in the world.

Discontent with the government during Tung's tenure became so bad that the national holiday for Hong Kong's handover to China, July 1, has become a day of protest.

In 2003 and 2004, as many as half a million residents spilled out into the streets of Causeway Bay and Wan Chai to call for more democracy and demand that Tung quit.

"The Hu Jintao leadership is going out of its way to ensure that the 'seeds' of democracy in Hong Kong, if they exist that is, will not have any effect on China," says Lam.

"Hu also won't agree to speeding up the snail's pace of democratization in the Hong Kong SAR."

Indeed, as many as 15 percent of people in Hong Kong say they don't want democracy at all, says Michael DeGolyer, from The Hong Kong Transition project, despite the mini-constitution saying universal suffrage is the "ultimate aim."

"They are very concerned that if they have direct elections, they could choose someone who could damage the prospects," he says.

Some commentators have already expressed concern that democracy could mean a whittling away of one of the most competitive business hubs in the world.

-- CNN's Marianne Bray in Hong Kong contributed to this report

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