The lawmakers' trip to Shanghai concluded as expected, without a breakthrough on political reform. This was hardly surprising, given the sharp divide between Beijing and the pan-democrats and the complexity of the issues involved. While the meeting failed to narrow the gap, the frank exchange has paved the way for further dialogue.
The pan-democrats should be commended for their decision to stay despite the Shanghai immigration episode. This followed a last-minute pullout by some lawmakers after rebel Leung Kwok-hung was told he could not bring in June 4-related items. The crackdown on the 1989 pro-democracy movement is no doubt still an issue close to the heart of many in Hong Kong, and the members may think it is a matter of their freedom of expression. Unfortunately, June 4 remains a political taboo on the mainland and items that go against the official version are banned. As the exchange is aimed at building consensus on universal suffrage, it would be better for the pan-democrats to focus on electoral arrangements in future.
It is reassuring that both sides have acknowledged the need to talk again. The liaison office chief said he would be happy to hold further discussions with lawmakers, including those who did not make the trip, over the next two months. The offer has been well received by individual members.
That Beijing has firmly dismissed the idea of open nomination for the chief executive in 2017 is to be expected. It has further explained the rationale for vesting nomination exclusively in the hands of a cross-sector committee. This would ensure a leader acceptable to different spheres and therefore reduce the risk of political confrontation. Also, it reduces the possibility of a crisis that could see Beijing refuse to appoint a winner it opposes. It also guards against populist and welfarist platforms.
But it was not all hard talking. A mainland official clarified that not all pan-democrats are unpatriotic, raising hopes that there may still be room for them to come forward. To what extent the remarks shape future debate will be closely watched.
We can ill-afford to miss the goal of implementing universal suffrage in 2017. But the reality is that Beijing holds the power of approval to make reform happen. It is important that both sides understand each other's concerns and try to narrow their differences. It is to be hoped that there will be more constructive dialogue in future.