EMOTIONS ARE running high in Hong Kong as it prepares for legislative elections that will reveal public views on the political future of the Chinese territory. The feelings were evident in the uproar over China's jailing of a pro-democracy legislative candidate two weeks ago. Without access to a lawyer or even a trial, Alex Ho Wai-to was sentenced to six months in a labor camp for allegedly soliciting a prostitute while on a business trip to the mainland, a conviction that is likely to disqualify him from the election. The unusually harsh sentence -- normally a fine or a couple of weeks of detention -- fueled speculation that China was engaged in another egregious attempt to smear pro-democracy parties before the Sept. 12 vote.
For the first time since Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule seven years ago, voters will cast ballots for 30 seats instead of 24, giving the democrats a chance of winning a legislative majority (30 other seats are filled by professional associations, most of which back Beijing). A win by the democrats would be seen as a repudiation of China's heavy-handed opposition to self-rule, particularly its April edict preemptively vetoing any proposals for direct elections of the chief executive, currently handpicked by Beijing, or of the full legislature before 2008.
Polls show that more than 70 percent of Hong Kong residents favor enhanced democracy. Maybe that's why Beijing is trying so hard, by fair means and foul, to tip the election. The United States and Britain, which promised to keep an eye on Hong Kong after the handover, should declare that they expect a fair and free election and that they will be watching. China promised the world that it would permit Hong Kong to retain its own political and economic system. The Bush administration and other democracies must make clear that they expect nothing less.