Hong Kong's Female Political Stars

When a foreign parliamentary delegation landed in Hong Kong recently, its members were struck by the reception they received. The welcoming committee, composed of the city's most prominent lawmakers, was predominantly female. "They saw us and asked, 'Why are there so many women?' " recalls Audrey Eu, leader of the Civic Party. "We said, 'Well, you know, women tend to cast a lasting impression'."

That's certainly true in Hong Kong these days. Set against the backdrop of an intensifying debate on the scope of political reform, a by-election to fill one vacant seat in Hong Kong's 60-member legislature (known as Legco) set for Dec. 2 has become "a battle of the titans," as local headlines blare. One candidate represents pro-democracy reformers and the other Beijing loyalists, and as it happens, both are women. Anson Chan, deputy to Hong Kong's last British governor and first Beijing-appointed leader, entered the election fray to push for universal suffrage. Regina Ip, also a career civil servant, also favors one-person, one-vote elections—but insists she would be better able to convey Hong Kong's democratic yearnings to China's top leaders.

By the numbers, women are far from attaining political parity in Hong Kong. They currently hold just 11 Legco seats and less than a quarter of the spots on the policymaking Executive Council. Even the two largest political parties have few women at their upper echelons. The typical pattern (seen with Chan and Ip) is for female candidates to run as independents.

Even so, women now lead two small parties, hold the Legco presidency and consistently top public-approval surveys. "The voters certainly accept women in top positions," says lawmaker Emily Lau, head of a pro-democracy political group called The Frontier. "The big parties should have plans to nurture them, but they don't."

Experts say Hong Kong women owe their political rise to two factors. One is the introduction of compulsory nine-year education in 1978, which opened pathways for girls that now lead to top universities. The other is the Filipino-nanny factor. "We have all benefited from domestic help initially available within the extended family, and now through foreign domestic helpers," says Ip. "Without them, a lot of working wives would have to go into a slow [career] track after starting a family."

For voters, gender isn't a major issue in the contest. The rivalry reflects two well-established political camps, debate centers on policy or leadership style and— notwithstanding the occasional press report analyzing hairdos—sex hasn't much to do with it. Indeed, voter acceptance of female candidates is widespread on both sides of the aisle. The victor will certainly be viewed as a presumptive candidate when (and if) Hong Kong begins choosing its chief executive by popular ballot in 2012.