Tue, Nov 09, 2004 - Page 5 News List

HK torn over democracy poll

`IMPRACTICAL EFFORTS' The territory's Catholic Church said it supports a non-binding referendum on democracy in Hong Kong, but Beijing isn't likely to listen

AFP , HONG KONG

Hong Kong's government has sought to check growing calls for a referendum on democracy in the Chinese territory as a report yesterday said the Catholic Church had backed a territory-wide poll.

A government spokesman labelled as impractical efforts by pro-democracy lawmakers to hold a non-binding referendum to gauge opinion on whether or not rulers in Beijing should allow the city to elect its political leader.

China has already ruled out such a vote, but if the government did not approve, proponents have said, they would organize their own unofficial poll.

The government said "the idea of a referendum is not practical" and not in accordance with the Basic Law, the city's mini-constitution.

"It would amount to a waste of time and energy, and a needless distraction for the community," a government statement said.

It stressed that it was taking seriously calls for electoral reform and that a process of gradual change had been put in motion.

Proponents hope a yes-vote would send a clear signal to China, which has ruled Hong Kong since 1997, that citizens want full democracy by 2007 when the incumbent, Beijing-appointed Tung Chee-hwa, must stand down.

In calling for a referendum, democrats hope China would reverse a ruling in April against a swift transition to universal suffrage.

Their hopes for a big yes-vote were buoyed by pro-democracy candidates' share of the vote in September legislative elections.

Democrats won 60 percent of the vote, although that only translated into 25 of the 60 legislative seats.

Lawmaker Lee Cheuk-yan turned up the heat on Sunday in a radio broadcast when he accused Tung of betraying Hong Kong by opposing a referendum.

And the Catholic Church has thrown its weight behind the effort, offering the use of its offices and schools as polling stations, the South China Morning Post newspaper said yesterday.

The outspoken head of the 250,000-worshipper strong diocese, Bishop Joseph Zen, told the newspaper the church's more than 300 schools and offices could be used if the government did not back the referendum call.

China is said to fear that granting Hong Kong more democracy would cause instability. It is also believed to be concerned that if it gave way to Hong Kong democrats it would come under pressure to do the same on the mainland under pressure from similar groups there.

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