The chief executive's duty visit to Beijing, once a routine without substance, has become a closely watched affair in recent years. From protocol arrangements to state officials' rhetoric, the local media scrutinises every detail to gauge Beijing's views about the leader's performance, as well as its expectations for the city's development. That a courtesy call has escalated into a highlight of the year speaks volumes about the changing political landscape.
Two messages stand out from this week's trip. First, Leung Chun-ying, despite flagging popularity, still enjoys the central government's support. But he is expected to give a better account of his achievements and inadequacies in what is said to be a move to formalise duty visits in the future. Second, political reform should be discussed in a pragmatic way, based on the Basic Law and decisions made by the National People's Congress Standing Committee in 2007.
The new arrangements suggest the duty visit has become a serious affair. That explains why Leung took along three ministers and met more government agencies during a longer trip this year. As Leung attaches high importance to Hong Kong-mainland relations, it is to be hoped that the contact can enhance co-operation. If there is any cross-border initiative to be announced in his policy speech next month, the duty visit will have been a good opportunity to sort out the details with the mainland authorities.
Remarks on universal suffrage by President Xi Jinping have invited an array of interpretations. He stopped short of ruling out the proposal of allowing voters to put forward chief executive candidates, which is seen by the pan-democrats as an important safeguard against moves to screen out aspirants opposed to Beijing. But his emphasis on pragmatic discussion has been interpreted by some as the clearest sign public nomination is unlikely to be accepted.
The state leader's appeal has done little to close the divide with the pan-democrats. For universal suffrage to be achieved, it is necessary to forge a consensus on the way forward. Unfortunately, both sides have raised the stakes to such a high level that it is difficult to see any common ground at this stage. As Beijing calls for pragmatism when mapping out the road map for democracy, it should also be pragmatic and listen to different voices in the community. Likewise, the pan-democrats should also be prepared to compromise.