A harsh reminder of the political reality
Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen has acted swiftly to allay fears about Hong Kong's autonomy in the wake of remarks by National People's Congress chairman Wu Bangguo at a conference marking the 10th anniversary of the Basic Law's implementation.
He told reporters on Thursday that the issues of separation of powers and residual powers had been made clear during the drafting process. The courts, he said, had exercised independent judicial powers. Put simply, Mr Tsang was anxious to reassure people that nothing has changed.
Change, however, was in the air when Mr Wu gave his no-nonsense reminder about the nature and limits of Hong Kong's autonomous powers in his speech, which was seen as Beijing's verdict on the 'one country, two systems' arrangement, 10 years on.
'However much power the central government decides to assign to the [special administrative region], this is what the SAR gets ... The question of the so-called 'residual power' does not exist,' he said.
Dismissing the advocacy of separation of powers between the executive, legislative and judiciary branches, Mr Wu emphasised that the Basic Law provided an 'executive-led' system, under which the chief executive plays a dominant role in its structure and operation. He again asked people to have a 'full, accurate' understanding on the 'executive-led' design.
Coming less than a month before the 10th anniversary of the handover, Mr Wu's remarks are hardly just a gentle reminder about the irrelevancy of the notions of separation of powers and residual power.
It is yet another sign of Beijing's change of tack on Hong Kong, following the march on July 1, 2003, by 500,000 people. At that time, their trust in the leadership of Tung Chee-hwa, and society at large, to find a balance in the mainland-Hong Kong relationship was vanishing. A case in point was the ruling by the NPC Standing Committee in 2004 against the introduction of universal suffrage for the election of the chief executive and all of the Legislative Council in 2007 and 2008, respectively.
On the eve of the 10th anniversary of the SAR, Mr Wu is saying that we should have a better understanding of the basic principles and parameters of the 'one country, two systems' policy.
With the upcoming government consultation on universal suffrage, there is no doubt that Beijing's reassertion of its authority and power over Hong Kong's constitutional reform has been carefully timed.
Mr Wu has highlighted the dual accountability of the chief executive, namely towards both the people of Hong Kong and the central government.
In the past few weeks, influential pro-Beijing figures, such as Executive Council convenor Leung Chun-ying, have warned of a constitutional crisis if a candidate for chief executive, elected by a majority of the people, did not get the central government's blessing. Beijing's underlying concerns, obvious from Mr Wu's speech, contrast strikingly with the official verdict on the success of 'one country, two systems'. The truth, however, as Mr Wu's speech has revealed, is far more complex.
Mainland legal experts from official and quasi-official academic institutes have cautioned, behind closed doors at conferences in Hong Kong, that the exercise of power by the government under the executive-led system has been severely constrained by the courts and legislature.
Ten years on, the largely smooth transition should have prompted Beijing to feel more confident to give a freer hand to people to run their own city.
That Beijing is seemingly moving in the opposite direction, towards tightening control, has cast a shadow over the handover anniversary celebrations, and over the policy of 'one country, two systems' from a broader perspective.
Chris Yeung is the Post's editor-at-large