Democracy is tripped up again
The option of having universal suffrage in Hong Kong for the 2012 election may still be on the table, in theory. But for Ng Hong-mun, a veteran pro-Beijing leader, 2017 would be a more appropriate time for electing the chief executive and the legislature by a one-man, one-vote system.
Mr Ng, a long-time Hong Kong delegate to the National People's Congress, floated the option of 2017 in a column in the Chinese-language Ming Pao 10 days ago. By doing so, he effectively ruled out any practical chance of universal suffrage in 2012.
Mr Ng's article was published amid speculation that the central government was becoming concerned about overheated talk of universal suffrage by 2012.
Speaking to reporters during a trip to Singapore last month, Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen raised some eyebrows when he said it was possible to have universal suffrage in that year.
At the time, Mr Tsang was under pressure from former chief secretary Anson Chan Fang On-sang to talk to Beijing about pushing for full democracy by 2012.
Former secretary for security Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee added to the momentum by expressing cautious optimism that it might be possible to achieve universal suffrage by 2012.
In its 2004 interpretation of the Basic Law, the NPC Standing Committee left open the possibility of democracy in 2012. That decision ruled out direct polls in 2007 and 2008.
Importantly, the committee's ruling gave added significance to the role of the chief executive in the process of constitutional review. It said he had the authority to recommend that central authorities review Hong Kong's electoral arrangements - which effectively means kick-starting the process of adopting universal suffrage.
Against the background of growing pressure on Mr Tsang to fight for universal suffrage in 2012, the move by Mr Ng to focus public debate on the option of 2017 has intrigued some political watchers.
One major argument he makes is based on the assumption that the chief executive to be elected in 2012 will be a new face: Mr Tsang, if he is re-elected in the March election next year, will not be able to contest the job for a third time.
The chief executive picked in 2012 will stand a good chance of re-election through universal suffrage in 2017. 'It will be safer to introduce universal suffrage when the candidate [presumably the then-serving chief executive] is being reconfirmed,' Mr Ng wrote.
'The chief executive [to be elected] in 2012 will be a key figure. He or she will play the role of bridging the past and the future, paving the way for universal suffrage. He or she will be the first person who gets the blessing of the central authorities and the full support of the society.'
In another of Mr Ng's arguments, he stressed that it is important to raise public awareness of the danger of foreign infiltration. People must be alerted to the risk of foreign agents interfering during the long lead-up to the 2017 election, he said.
With their sense of vigilance thus strengthened, people would shun aspirants who were mouthpieces of foreign forces, he said. That would be an appropriate time to introduce universal suffrage.
Mr Ng's no-nonsense thoughts on the 2017 option shed light on the depth of fears - among some quarters in Hong Kong and Beijing - about the implications of a popular vote.
That apprehension, put bluntly, means that universal suffrage can only be introduced under a system that is free of political risk.
In a risk-free system, a candidate with Beijing's blessing would be a certain winner, and people deemed to be agents of foreign forces would not have a chance of contesting the vote.
The weight of those concerns will add to the political volatilities and uncertainties that are likely to unfold in the run-up to 2012. So the chances that universal suffrage will be introduced even by 2017 sound neither probable nor promising, at least for now.
Chris Yeung is the Post's editor-at-large