One month before a crucial vote, the hard realities of Hong Kong's complicated electoral system have forced democracy activists to scale back their hopes of translating broad public support into political power strong enough to defy the Chinese government.
Although conditions could change before the Sept. 12 legislative election, political analysts said, the likely outcome of the vote will be a continuation of the inconclusive and sometimes bitter standoff that has marked the former British colony's relations with mainland China for more than a year.
Political figures who demand expanded voting rights will retain strong representation in the Legislative Council, analysts predicted, but probably will not get the broad victory that would give them the power to challenge Beijing.
Public opinion polls have consistently found that a clear majority of the territory's 6.7 million residents endorse the demands for faster movement toward full-fledged democracy, including direct election of the chief executive and expansion of direct elections for the Legislative Council from the current 30 seats to all 60. But that endorsement has not led to the tidal wave among voters that activists hoped would produce a decisive pro-democracy majority in the council.
The main reason seems to be the Chinese government's decision on April 26 not to allow the chief executive to be picked by direct elections in 2007, as demanded by the democracy advocates, and not to allow all 60 Legislative Council seats to be filled by direct elections the following year. That decision, which provoked loud complaints in Hong Kong and muted criticism in Washington, has come to be seen by voters as a settled issue, robbing pro-democracy politicians of their main rallying cry.
"As a result, now comes the election and there's no issue," said Shiu Sin Por, who runs One Country, Two Systems, a pro-Beijing research institute housed in the towering Bank of China building overlooking Hong Kong harbor. "A lot of people were unhappy with the decision, but they can live with it."
Cici Chong, 30, a restaurant hostess who migrated here from China's Guizhou province, largely agreed with that assessment, saying she felt distant from the arguments about direct elections and how much autonomy the Chinese government should give Hong Kong.
"I couldn't care less about the election," she said. "I do not know about politics. I have not voted before, and I do not know how to vote. Whoever wins, it will be the same for me. I think it is more important for us to have an efficient government. Hong Kong will not collapse without democracy. I think the politicians should not make so much noise about it."
The hopes of Hong Kong's democracy advocates -- and the fears of Beijing's take-it-slow officials -- began to surge after an anti-government demonstration on July 1, 2003, that drew more than 500,000 people into the streets. The turnout startled Hong Kong's political establishment on both sides of the democracy argument and quickly led to an expectation that the democracy camp could perhaps win an overwhelming majority in the Legislative Council, providing a stronger platform for political demands on Beijing.
Opinion polls consistently showed that about 60 percent of the population wanted to move more swiftly toward full democracy under the "one country, two systems" arrangement put into place when Britain returned Hong Kong to Chinese sovereignty in 1997. Specifically, Hong Kong residents wanted to pick their next chief executive in 2007 and vote for the full legislature in 2008, after the coming four-year term.
Currently, the chief executive is chosen by an 800-member committee largely beholden to the Chinese government; the Legislative Council has 30 seats elected directly and 30 chosen by economic groups such as labor unions, lawyers and business people.
Public opinion on the issue has not changed. Another pro-democracy demonstration this July 1 drew hundreds of thousands of people. But after Beijing made its views clear, the sentiments voiced in polls and on the streets did not translate into support for parties and candidates identified with greater democracy.
In addition, the Chinese government has taken steps in recent months to soften its image in Hong Kong, seeking to reassure residents that its intentions are good even if progress toward direct elections seems slow.
The two-tier system by which the Legislative Council is elected also has proved to be an obstacle to focusing voter sentiment on greater democracy. Early opinion surveys show that a startling number of people do not understand the seven-year-old system.
A survey announced Monday by the University of Hong Kong's Public Opinion Program and Civic Exchange, a pro-democracy research institute, showed that 77 percent of the respondents said they did not know how the system worked. Another 10 percent said they understood, but could not explain it.
"The election sounds very complicated," said Antoine So, a 38-year-old office worker. "You are not voting for the person you like, but you vote for a ticket. I do not know how it works."
Jackie Hong, spokeswoman for the Civil Human Rights Front, which has worked on a neighborhood level to promote support for more democracy, said the multi-tier voting system was designed to dilute public opinion, giving the Chinese government more ways to exercise central control.
"It is very difficult for people to understand," she said. "That's what the Beijing government is looking for."
Within Hong Kong's five geographical constituencies, where representatives are selected by direct elections, many voters have yet to pay attention to the campaign and decide on whom to vote for, the survey showed. This means the outcome could still swing radically, said Robert Chung of the Public Opinion Program, but it also means many voters simply have not tuned in.
"We are not a very mature electorate in Hong Kong," he said.
Special correspondent K.C. Ing contributed to this report.