Beijing knew full well the likely backlash against a white paper in which it unequivocally stated its unquestioned authority over Hong Kong - and decided it was vital to press ahead anyway.
The white paper, published last week, has become a rallying point for pan-democrats who are using it to motivate Hongkongers to join a public vote on political reform starting today, and the July 1 protest rally.
Several mainland researchers familiar with the central government's policies on Hong Kong said Beijing assessed the political risk, but decided it had to spell out its stance as the political reform process ahead of the 2017 chief executive election reached a crucial juncture. It wanted to stress the relationship between "one country" and "two systems", as well as the need for the city's first democratically elected leader to "love the country".
The document reminded Hongkongers that it was the central government's prerogative to oversee how Hong Kong's affairs were run, adding that some people in Hong Kong were "confused and lopsided" in their understanding of the "one country, two systems" policy.
The paper was issued 10 days ago, and some associated the timing with the Occupy Central movement's vote on models for the 2017 election, which runs from today until June 29. The movement, which plans to rally activists to block roads in Central unless the government brings forward a plan for 2017 that meets international standards for democracy, had been under fire for shortlisting three similar models, all of which would allow the public to nominate candidates.
Beijing has ruled out the idea, insisting that only a nominating committee can pick hopefuls under the Basic Law. The limited choice had led to concerns people who did not want confrontation with Beijing would not vote.
The white paper is expected to increase the turnout for the week-long poll, adding to its credibility. But researchers said that did not worry Beijing.
"It is unavoidable more people will take part in the referendum and July 1 march in the wake of the … white paper. It is within our expectations," a mainland researcher said.
"Hong Kong people need to think hard on issues like how to address the central government's concern that the chief executive elected in 2017 must love the country," the researcher added. "It sounds strange that a substantial number of people in Hong Kong look at the requirement of 'loving the country' from a negative angle."
Another researcher said the white paper marked a tougher stance from Beijing. Since 2003, when 500,000 Hongkongers took to the streets to derail plans for a new national security law, the central government had offered concessions to Hong Kong.
"It's time for the central government to stick to its principles more firmly when it deals with Hong Kong," the researcher said.
A Hong Kong government source said the central government "saw no need to avoid sensitive timing before deciding when to issue the white paper".
"There is no such thing as the best timing for issuing the white paper. Even if you avoid the … 'referendum' and the July 1 march, there will be another round of voting organised by Occupy Central," the source said, referring to Occupy's plans for a poll pitting the model that wins its first vote against the plan the government brings forward. The government is expected to release a proposal later this year.
Cheung Man-kwong, a former lawmaker from the Democratic Party, said Beijing's argument that it had "comprehensive jurisdiction" over Hong Kong had altered the nature of the "high level of autonomy" Beijing had promised in the 1980s. He said Hong Kong people had considered Beijing's promises then as a "contract" by which it would be bound.
"Beijing doesn't understand the 'contract' concept treasured by Hong Kong people. You shouldn't threaten to take back what you have already promised," he said.
Cheung said many arguments in the white paper were in stark contrast to the lenient approach by the Beijing government in the 1980s when it sought to boost Hongkongers' confidence in the city's future under Chinese rule.
In the early 1980s, Liao Chengzhi, then director of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, reassured Hong Kong people that the change of sovereignty in 1997 was as minimalist as it was liberal: all that would change would be the governor and the flag.
But an inkling of how far the mood has changed came in the form of a front-page commentary in People's Daily yesterday. In it, the Beijing mouthpiece criticised some Hong Kong people for attempting to turn the city into an independent or quasiindependent political entity by referring to the Basic Law as the city's "mini-constitution".