Amid the gloom over prospects for democracy, some observers see little room to make the nominating committee that will choose two or three candidates for chief executive in 2017 more democratic than the election committee it replaces.
The National People's Congress (NPC) Standing Committee ruled yesterday that the "broadly representative" committee must be based on the 1,200-strong body that decided the 2012 poll. That body was split between four sectors: business, professionals, politicians and a catch-all fourth sector containing religious, labour and welfare groups.
But central government officials, Beijing loyalists and political observers see scope for democratisation, perhaps by broadening the electoral base, the abolition of corporate voting or a reshuffle of the 38 subsectors that elect most member.
Hong Kong deputy to the NPC Maria Tam Wai-chu said: "The Hong Kong government still has to think of ways to deal with the subsectors that form the [four] main sectors."
Basic Law Committee member and Peking University law professor Rao Geping said he "understood" that "what the [sectors] will look like and how many members there are in each [subsector]" would be dealt with in Hong Kong, though all sectors must be of the same size.
Chen Zuoer, head of the Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macau Studies and former deputy director of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, said details of the committee's formation were up to Hong Kong.
NPC Standing Committee member Rita Fan Hsu Lai-tai said corporate voting could be scrapped. City University political scientist Dr James Sung Lap-kung agreed, adding: "The government can dump some insignificant subsectors to release the seats for other new subsectors with wider electorate bases." He cited agriculture and fisheries as one target for reform.
University of Hong Kong law professor Simon Young noted one important uncertainty in the decision. "It does not touch upon the method of voting by the people ... It will be important to have high public support for the winning candidate."
But University of Hong Kong law scholar, Professor Albert Chen Hung-yee, doubted corporate voting would be abolished, and said slightly expanding the base of corporate voters would do little to help.
"I doubt pan-democrats will be interested in these minor changes," he said. About five pan-democrats must support the package for it to win the required two-thirds majority in the Legislative Council.
Sung expects relations between pan-democrats and Beijing to grow even more tense, but not to break down completely.
"If the reform package is voted down, that means the old electoral system will stay for 2017," Sung said. "The pan-democrats will still have to consider whether they want to grab seats in the election committee."
Veteran China watcher Johnny Lau Yui-siu said his sources told him Beijing was aware of the possible impact of Occupy Central and problems of governance if some form of democratic reform did not come to be.
"Their assessment is that the risk is still manageable," said Lau, "If there is no big outcry in Hong Kong after the announcement … there may be a chance that the Hong Kong government can be allowed a freer hand to explore a more liberal arrangement."
The Standing Committee also ruled that there was no need to change arrangements for the 2016 Legco election, though local officials earlier said some changes - such as scrapping some functional seats - could be decided locally.