ANSON CHAN'S DECISION to stand in a by-election for Hong Kong's semi-democratic legislature is good news. Her admirers in Hong Kong have waited for a long time for this beloved but aloof figure to, as she put it "put my money where my mouth is." Chan reached the top of Hong Kong's civil service, earning the respect of the former British colonial government and the suspicion of the Chinese communists in the process. Too popular and independent to get along with the unpopular and incompetent Tung Chee-hwa, Beijing's first handpicked chief executive, she was forced out of the number two position of chief secretary in 2001.
Since then she has performed a political fan dance. Would she or wouldn't she contest the chief executive position? Of course, that "election" has an electorate of just 800--the members of a largely Beijing-appointed "Selection Committee."
The by-election is not terribly consequential; one seat changing hands will not make a difference to Hong Kong's democratic development. If Beijing had not devised the election system and legislative procedures to neuter them, democrats would already control the legislature. But for now, Beijing calls the shots.
Nevertheless, a race will be enjoyable political theater. The seat she will contest, on Hong Kong Island, was left vacant by the death, in August, of Ma Lik, the head of Hong Kong's leading pro-communist China political party.
Only last May, Ma enraged Hong Kong by denying that a massacre of democracy protesters had taken place on the night of June 3-4 1989 in Beijing. Those who believed such nonsense, he said, were unpatriotic and not ready for full democracy. Memories of what became known as the Tiananmen massacre are still fresh in Hong Kong. The killings galvanized the democracy movement. Many sent money and supplies to demonstrators in the square and contributed in efforts to help the most wanted student leaders escape China after the crackdown.
Today, Hong Kong is the only place in China where public commemoration of the massacre at Tiananmen is allowed, and Ma's remarks boosted the number of marchers this year. When, for the ninth time since the massacre, pro-democracy legislators tried to pass a motion honoring the victim, Ma's colleagues in the legislature all voted against it.
(Especially entertaining, is the prospect that Chan's opponent may be Regina Ip, the Beijing sycophant and former Justice secretary. Her contempt for the democratic aspirations of her fellow citizens helped boost participation in the 1 million strong 2003 march against proposed legislative restrictions on civil liberties. The proposal was withdrawn and its mishandling led to the fall of Tung and Secretary Ip.)
Of course, the Chinese Communist party also denies the killings at Tiananmen and slanders the demonstrators as "counterrevolutionaries." But Chan and other democrats in Hong Kong are free to talk about the Tiananmen massacre and Chinese communist rule in a way that mainland activists and dissidents are not. The rest of the world should keep that in mind during the year long build up to the Beijing Olympic games.
Ellen Bork works at Freedom House, a non-profit organization that promotes democracy and freedom worldwide.