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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Hong Kong's Leader Sets Date for Election

HONG KONG -- Hong Kong leader Tung Cheehwa set a date for legislative elections Wednesday, urged all comers to run for office, and promised Hong Kong would continue to welcome Western business and culture.

But he also called for closer ties with China, and said Hong Kong still needs to learn more about its motherland.

Tung was giving his first annual policy address as Hong Kong's post-colonial chief executive, addressing an unelected legislature whose establishment has marred an otherwise smooth and uneventful 100 days under Chinese rule.

He opened his two-hour speech by dwelling on the historic import of Hong Kong's July 1 switch from British colony to semi-autonomous region of China.

He implied that not everyone has grasped the meaning of "one country, two systems" -- the formula of mutual non-interference that is meant to preserve Hong Kong as a free, capitalist society under a Western legal system, without undermining Communist rule over China.

"When we truly recognize the significance of 'one country, two systems,' we will be able to find the way forward and will be able to handle the relationship between Hong Kong and the central government," Tung said.

At a news conference afterward, Tung said Beijing has not violated Hong Kong's promised autonomy in any way, and has repeatedly reassured him he has a free hand to manage local affairs.

Tung's remarks on respecting "one country, two systems" seemed directed at critics who have claimed the right to campaign for an end to Communist rule in China.

Some of those critics, Democratic Party legislators who lost their seats when China took over, demonstrated outside the legislature and then listened to the speech from the public gallery.

China disbanded the previous legislature, saying the election rules had been changed without its consent.

Tung detailed a range of initiatives to combat high housing prices, aid the elderly, boost health services, support the movie industry and develop infrastructure.

He left politics to the end, setting May 24 for next year's election and promising it will be fair and open to all candidates.

But the voting system will be changed in ways that democrats complain will weaken their chances of a big comeback. "We believe democracy is the most important thing, but he has virtually nothing on that. He is fooling himself," Andrew Cheng, a Democrat and ousted legislator, told reporters after the speech.

Asked at his news conference why he said little about politics, Tung said he thinks "livelihood issues" preoccupy most Hong Kong people.

He reiterated his view that movement toward full, direct elections should be gradual. China has promised that direct elections of the legislature and chief executive will be considered after a decade.

"The important thing is to make sure that this government is accountable to the people ... that the rule of law is strong ... that freedom prevails," he said.

The wood-paneled Edwardian chamber where the 60-member legislature sits were unchanged from colonial days.

But at the rostrum occupied for generations by governors sent from London, there now stood stocky, bristly-haired Tung, a 60-year-old former shipping tycoon and boyhood refugee from China, appointed by Beijing as Hong Kong's first home-grown leader, speaking Cantonese instead of the traditional English.