Progress, with provisos
The decision to deny Hong Kong the right to choose its chief executive and the entire legislature through universal suffrage in 2007 and 2008 marks another step in the erosion of the autonomy supposedly bestowed on the special administrative region in 1997, which it was meant to enjoy for 50 years.
The move, by the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress, was in response to a report filed by Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa on April 15, saying that in his opinion 'the methods for selecting the chief executive in 2007, and for forming the Legislative Council in 2008, should be amended, so as to enable Hong Kong's constitutional development to move forward'.
The Standing Committee only had to endorse his report, leaving it to Hong Kong to decide on the new methods to be used. However, while agreeing that the methods could be amended, it also decided to circumscribe the areas of possible change. In addition to ruling out universal suffrage in those two years, it also stipulated that where Legco was concerned, no more than half its members can be directly elected in 2008, with the other half elected through functional constituencies, just like in this year's election.
The Hong Kong government welcomed the Standing Committee's decision, with Chief Secretary Donald Tsang Yam-kuen hailing a 'golden opportunity' for Hong Kong to demonstrate its political maturity.
Actually, even given the prescribed limits, it is true that progress is still possible. For one thing, the 800-member Election Committee responsible for choosing the chief executive should be made much more representative, so that it is not dominated by conservative business, and pro-China, interests.
Currently, the rule is that a candidate needs to be nominated by at least 100 members. In 2002, Mr Tung received more than 700 nominations, making it impossible for anyone else to be considered for the post. There should be a new rule to ensure that no one can monopolise an election and make a mockery of the process. Moreover, the Standing Committee's decision, while leaving the ratio of directly elected and functionally elected members unchanged, does allow for the enlargement of Legco.
Many people have complained that there are not enough members to do all the work, and that it is often difficult to have a quorum for committee and panel meetings. Enlarging the legislature, possibly to 80 or 100 seats, would help relieve the manpower shortage.
Expanding Legco could open up 10 or 20 additional directly elected seats in 2008, creating an opportunity to attract more people into politics and allowing political parties to grow by absorbing new blood.
True, it would also mean creating new functional constituencies. However, as former governor Chris Patten showed, they are not necessarily undemocratic. New functional constituencies with a large voter base can be created, similar to the ones he established.
While the pro-China camp was hostile to Mr Patten's efforts in the 1990s, times have changed, and there is wide recognition that even the existing functional constituencies should be made more representative. Clearly, they are going to be with us for some time, so we should ensure that they are widely representative. This is also a good time to re-examine the idea of 'one person, two votes', giving everyone a chance to vote in both the direct and functional elections.
However, throughout it all, we will have to bear in mind that the central government has now set a precedent and shown that, whatever Hong Kong proposes, it is in a position to veto the idea.
Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator