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Hong Kong leader is chipping away at democracy

Hong Kong's first post-colonial administrator, Tung Chee-hwa, has spent his first 100 days in office reassuring the international business community - and his Chinese masters - that "one country, two systems" really works.

When he speaks to Hong Kong's 6.4 million residents, he stresses the "one country" aspect of Deng Xiaoping's famous promise, reminding them they are no longer British subjects but Chinese and must accept their responsibilities to the Beijing government "with enthusiasm."When he addresses foreign governments and financial institutions - he has hosted a World Bank meeting and visited Malaysia, Singapore and Washington - he emphasizes "two systems," pointing out that Hong Kong is autonomous and open for business.

Tung reiterated both themes in his maiden state-of-the-territory speech Wednesday, a British tradition dating back to the 1850s but without a British governor this time. With Tung in charge of its "Special Administrative Region," China is at ease.

Not so Hong Kong's democrats.

Although Tung set a date for legislative elections next year, May 24, he has also fashioned an election law that will dramatically reduce the one-man, one-vote franchise left by the British. Universal suffrage is preserved in only 20 of 60 parliamentary seats. Another 30 will be assigned to industry groups as "functional constituencies."

This too was a British invention, less savory than the democratic legacy of Hong Kong's last governor, Chris Patten. It was used by the colonial powers in pre-communist Shanghai to limit Chinese influence. Now it is being used by Tung to cut down the number of voters deciding the makeup of half the Hong Kong legislature - from 2.7 million under British rule to 180,000 under China.

Tung has turned back the clock in other ways, scrapping some civil liberties and imposing limits on the formation of political parties and their right to protest. He has also frozen a batch of labor laws, weakening trade unions.

The leader of Hong Kong's Democratic Party, Martin Lee, accuses Tung of assuming "dictatorial powers." President Clinton has publicly expressed his "disappointment" in Tung's lack of commitment to democracy. And Hong Kong columnist Fanny Wong goes out of her way to remind Tung that "an undemocratic Hong Kong is a bad product to sell both locally and in the Western world."

However, democrats are a distinct minority in Hong Kong. They are easily outnumbered by the "business as usual" crowd - both foreign and local - and less-affluent Chinese more concerned with filling their rice bowls and finding affordable housing than freedom of expression.

These are the constituencies Tung is courting. And he appears to be succeeding. Public opinion polls indicate that 44 percent of Hong Kong's residents are satisfied with his performance so far and only 10 percent are dissatisfied.

Businessmen have nothing to complain about. The Hang Seng index has maintained record highs. The Hong Kong dollar is the only currency that did not fall when Thailand's plunging baht sent the rest of Asia into a tailspin. The government predicts a respectable growth rate of 5.5 percent for this year, and that may be conservative.

For the less affluent, Tung promises cheaper housing, better paying jobs, more education and improved welfare benefits. Housing is a particular concern. Although Hong Kong has one of the highest per capita incomes in the world, many cannot afford a two-bedroom apartment.

Hong Kong is also expensive for tourists, and that may be what is keeping the Chinese army garrison confined to barracks. Its soldiers earn the equivalent of $3.50 a month, which won't even buy them a beer in a Wanchai pub. Hong Kong Chinese feel sorry for their mainland cousins but express few feelings of brotherhood. In a survey published on China's recent National Day - the day Tung decreed that the territory would henceforth be awash in red flags - 60 percent said they felt more "Hong Kong" than "Chinese." So much for the patriotism he is trying to instill.