With some pan-democratic legislators due to announce their resignation next week to trigger a 'de facto referendum' on democracy, the central government has plunged into the controversy in a ham-fisted fashion. It has accused those behind the plan of mounting a 'blatant challenge' to the Basic Law and Beijing's authority.
A statement by the State Council's Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office contained what appeared to be a veiled threat that the plan by the League of Social Democrats and the Civic Party might derail universal suffrage elections scheduled for 2017. The 'so-called referendum' would 'damage hard-earned achievements', Beijing said.
But its expression of 'grave concern' is likely to be counterproductive. If Beijing had not intervened, the by-elections may not have stirred much interest and the voter turnout would probably have been low. However, by drawing attention to the elections, the central government is unwittingly increasing interest, as well as voter turnout, thus helping the planners to claim that it was a legitimate referendum.
Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen told the Legislative Council last Thursday that there were no legal grounds for the 'so-called referendum' since the Basic Law does not provide for one, and the government would not recognise the result.
That is as definitive as it gets; there was no need for Beijing to intervene. Its statements simply make the Hong Kong administration look like a puppet government.
It is unclear what Beijing intends to achieve by issuing the statement. Certainly, the pan-democratic lawmakers who have decided to quit are not going to change their minds.
But, by calling the move 'fundamentally against' the Basic Law and the 2007 decision by the National People's Congress Standing Committee to allow universal suffrage in 2017, Beijing seems to want to somehow prevent the 'referendum' from going ahead.
By law, legislators have the right to resign and, by law, the government has to hold by-elections to fill the vacancies created. Beijing cannot order the legislators not to resign. And, if it orders the Tsang administration not to hold by-elections to fill those seats, it will stupidly precipitate a constitutional crisis in Hong Kong.
As it is, left to their own devices, the pan-democrats are likely to lose one or more of the five seats that they plan to vacate. This is a highly risky procedure and it is no wonder the Democratic Party decided not to take part. If - as is likely - the pan-democrats do lose seats, it will be very hard for them to claim a victory.
Since this is not really a referendum, the entire exercise hangs on the turnout and on whether the pan-democrats can hang onto their seats. Many countries require the turnout for a referendum to be higher than an ordinary election so, if it is low, there can be no claim of victory. Even if the turnout is high in Hong Kong, the pan-democrats cannot claim victory if they emerge from the elections with fewer seats. The cards are therefore stacked against the pan-democrats in a game that they themselves devised.
Beijing's attitude is similar to Taipei's when it held a referendum in 2008. It said Taiwan, as part of China, had no right to conduct a referendum. Then, when the vote on whether Taiwan should apply to join the UN failed, Xinhua trumpeted that Taiwan voters had 'vetoed [the] 'UN membership referendum' pursued by Chen Shui-bian authorities'.
So the failure of the Taiwan referendum caused Beijing to bestow on it a degree of legitimacy. By issuing a statement on the Hong Kong 'referendum', Beijing has painted itself into a corner.
However, if central government officials were to come out and say publicly that the 2017 universal suffrage election will be genuine, and that functional constituencies will be abolished by 2020, no doubt some of the legislators involved will have second thoughts about resigning, aborting the de facto referendum. That, however, is unlikely to happen.
Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator