Bracing for battle

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 14 September, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 14 September, 2005, 12:00am

Could it be a spell of calm before the storm? In an intriguing consensus, Vice-President Zeng Qinghong and the pan-democracy force have marginalised the contentious issue of constitutional reform during the leader's visit - at least temporarily.

In what was described by pro-Beijing media as a significant speech on Hong Kong policy on Sunday, Mr Zeng did not delve into the issue. Nor did he touch upon it when he addressed Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen and his team.

Meanwhile, the democrats decided to reiterate their universal suffrage demand in a joint letter to Mr Zeng via Mr Tsang, before dining with the visiting leader. They clearly feared talking tough on the issue could chill the wind of conciliation.

Beneath the subdued political atmosphere, however, lies a sea of turbulent currents, swirling around the electoral plans for 2007 and 2008.

While Mr Zeng had stopped short of mentioning it, he presumably has the upcoming clash over constitutional reform in mind, as he harped on the theme of inclusiveness and harmony in his speech.

He advocated 'seeking common ground while reserving differences, and being generous for the common good', which he said meant building 'prosperity through harmony', and 'stability through amity'.

An apparent private session between Chief Secretary Rafael Hui Si-yan and Mr Zeng at a hotel on Sunday also raised eyebrows. Some say it's likely they discussed constitutional reform. Under the government's previous schedule, a task force headed by Mr Hui was due by the end of this month to put forward a 'mainstream model' for election methods for the next chief executive and legislature.

Uncertainty over the timetable - and possibly the details - of that proposal looms, amid intense but hushed talk between top local officials and their mainland counterparts. Mr Hui paid at least one unpublicised trip to Beijing in August, presumably to discuss political reform. During a visit to Beijing last week, Mr Tsang is understood to have had detailed talks on the same issue with Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office Director Liao Hui . At the same time there was a flurry of media reports, some contradictory, on the government's proposal and Beijing's view of it.

It looks likely the government is planning to propose an increase in the number of Legislative Council seats from 60 to 70. Of the 10 new seats, five would go to geographical constituencies, and the rest set aside for a constituency made up of all district council members.

Some reports said Beijing has already given a nod to the package. Others claimed the consultation schedule has been stalled by reservations from Beijing.

Lending credence to these reports, pro-Beijing, pro-government camps like the Liberal Party and local delegates of the National People's Congress have opposed or expressed reservations over the model.

Intensified lobbying over electoral reform, even before the formal consultation, may help explain Mr Zeng's deliberate avoidance of the issue in his trip. Instead, he issued a plea for all sectors and political groups to consider the overall interests of Hong Kong and the mainland, and 'seek common ground, and reserve differences.'

With his theme of harmony and consensus, Mr Zeng was attempting to consolidate support from friends and moderate opposition from the democrats ahead of the looming storm of political reform.

The curtain is raised and the stage set. Get ready for the imminent display of power and influence that the battle over 2007-2008 electoral changes promises to be.

Chris Yeung is the Post's editor-at-large