Groping towards 'one country, two systems'
When Hong Kong's administration began its public consultation on political reform in November, the central government's liaison office made it clear that the changes would be limited to 2012. Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen did not have the authority to decide on the universal suffrage elections in 2017 and 2020, they said.
Now it is clear that the Tsang administration did not even have a free hand to deal with 2012 issues. When the Democratic Party made its key proposal - a broadening of the electorate for the district council functional constituency from 400 elected councillors to over 3 million voters - the Tsang administration feared Beijing might consider this a violation of the National People's Congress Standing Committee decision of 2007. It decreed that the legislature's 50-50 balance of geographical and functional seats had to be preserved.
And so the Democratic Party turned to the central government. Even so, Li Gang , deputy director of the liaison office, said on May 26 that the proposal did not comply with the legislative intent of the Basic Law, and might conflict with the 2007 decision. Elsie Leung Oi-sie, vice-chairwoman of the Basic Law Committee, then warned of a constitutional crisis if the Tsang administration accepted the Democratic Party proposal.
Well, as we all know, an agreement was eventually reached between the central government and the Democratic Party, in which Beijing accepted the proposal and the lawmakers passed the reforms.
But then, what of the concerns about violating the spirit of the Basic Law? Or of upsetting the 50-50 balance? Li was not speaking frivolously when he voiced those concerns.
Theoretically the Standing Committee could still issue an interpretation nullifying the Legco vote, precipitating a crisis. That is not likely, because the Standing Committee, like the government, is under the Communist Party - which evidently made the decision at the highest level.
But this does not help China in developing an image of rule of law. The Basic Law should be interpreted not by the government but by the NPC. The government cannot simply behave as though the law means whatever it says it means.
The Basic Law says the ultimate aim is universal suffrage elections for both the chief executive and the legislature. It originally set out a three-step process to achieve that; the first two steps were to be taken in Hong Kong - a two-thirds vote in the legislature followed by the chief executive's endorsement. Only then would Beijing get involved, approving the new process for the chief executive and simply recording the new process for Legco.
But all that changed in 2004, without a formal amendment to the Basic Law. The Standing Committee unilaterally changed the Basic Law by abolishing the three-step process and replacing it with a five-step process that took the initiative away from Hong Kong.
Since then, Hong Kong has had to go as a supplicant to Beijing and ask it for permission to initiate the process of changing the election method. This was a narrowing of the city's authority even though the 'one country, two systems' principle remained in place.
Beijing needs to remember the importance of 'Hong Kong people ruling Hong Kong' as part of the 'one country, two systems' policy. When Beijing makes decisions unilaterally, it is not 'one country, two systems.'
But if the coming elections in 2017 for chief executive and 2020 for Legco are genuinely free, then 'one country, two systems' may yet work properly, because Hongkongers would choose the leaders they want.
As long as Beijing chooses Hong Kong's leaders, it will not really be one country, two systems.
Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator. firstname.lastname@example.org