Hong Kong's third city-wide election race of the year is under way - but ordinary Hongkongers could be forgiven for not feeling the buzz of the poll for members of the nation's parliament.
While some National People's Congress deputies believe they have played an increasingly significant role in recent years, others argue that they see little change and remain critical of the method of election - which sees a small circle of just 1,620 electors choose by block vote the 36-strong local delegation, which will serve for five years.
The NPC has the power to amend the constitution and oversee its enforcement, enact and amend laws governing criminal offences, civil affairs and the like; elect and appoint members to central state organs; and determine key state issues.
Delegates from Hong Kong and elsewhere have long been dubbed a rubber stamp with little de facto power to scrutinise policy initiatives.
Some 52 aspirants are gearing up to run in the December 19 election, including 23 outgoing delegates.
They include Rita Fan Hsu Lai-tai, a member of the NPC's powerful Standing Committee, Maria Tam Wai-chu, a deputy convenor of the Hong Kong delegation, and Fanny Law Fan Chiu-fun, an Executive Council member and Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying's former top aide.
New faces joining the fray include former security minister Ambrose Lee Siu-kwong and Li Yinquan, vice-president of the China Merchants Group.
Only two contenders are pan-democrats - Fong King-lok, an executive committee member of the Professional Teachers' Union and Dutch-born Southern District councillor Paul Zimmerman, who quit the Civic Party in summer.
Those who will choose the line-up include members of the election panel from the previous poll, which took place in January 2008, as well as the Hong Kong delegates to the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference and Chinese nationals who were part of the chief executive election committee that picked Leung in March.
The poll will be overseen by a 19-strong presidium chaired by Leung and also including his predecessors Tung Chee-hwa and Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, as well as Asia's richest man, Li Ka-shing, and Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong chairman Tam Yiu-chung.
Each elector has to choose 36 candidates. The top 36 candidates in the ballot - as long as they receive more than 50 per cent support - will be elected.
Former delegate Ng Hon-mun, who served from 1975 - when Hongkongers formed part of the Guangdong delegation - to 2008, is one of those who questions the role of local deputies and the way they are elected.
"To be frank, many people [delegates] just hold the positions and do nothing. 'They can neither assist the emperor nor benefit the people', as the saying goes. How can they speak for Hongkongers?" Ng wrote in an article in Ming Pao last month.
He had earlier urged Exco members and lawmakers not to run for the NPC unless they had sufficient energy and proficiency in policy discussion. Beijing loyalists, such as lawmakers Ma Fung-kwok and Ng Leung-sing, snubbed his call and will defend their NPC seats.
Ng described as "inevitably feudal" the fact that some outgoing delegates try to pass the baton on to a successor from the same federation or group.
For example, Chan Yung, the chairman of the New Territories Association of Societies, will try to succeed outgoing delegate Lo Suk-ching from the same group.
Federation of Trade Unions lawmaker Wong Kwok-kin, who is standing down from the NPC after serving since 2003, said: "It is a legacy of history. The posts were a kind of reward in the past.
"With the role of NPC delegates evolving, the practice should be changed. Only by amending the electoral methods can it be changed."
But Ma said: "It should be up to electors to decide whether there is something wrong with this practice ... if one can win recognition in his or her sector, I don't think it is problematic."
Ng also identified another problem - the fact some Beijing loyalists are put off from running due to concerns that a larger field will split the votes and give pan-democrats a chance of winning.
Association for Democracy and People's Livelihood lawmaker Frederick Fung Kin-kee, who has twice lost in the NPC election, could not agree more.
He believes it is impossible for pan-democrats - however popular they are in the city - to make it to the NPC.
"The election system lets some factions monopolise all 36 seats. Each voter can pick exactly 36 candidates - no more or less. If one exerts influence over at least half of the 1,620 electors, he can ensure that his preferred candidates bag all 36 seats," Fung said. Fewer than 200 electors are considered pan-democrats.
"It is very difficult [for pan-democrats] to win. Most electors are from the business and professional sectors as well as Beijing loyalists … my canvassing simply fell on deaf ears."
Fung believes NPC delegates struggle to play a significant role in local or national affairs. "In Hong Kong, they cannot interfere in local affairs, while not many have a good grasp of mainland affairs. What's more, the Hong Kong delegation is just a small part of the whole NPC. I think it is not easy for Hong Kong deputies to exert influence," he said.
The Hongkongers will comprise barely 1 per cent of the 3,000 deputies.
Another perennial losing candidate who will not run this year is Democratic Party lawmaker James To Kun-sun, who has run in vain three times.
He said he had come to realise that the exercise provided few opportunities to promote his views on the country's development, as the media showed little interest in also-rans.
"No one thinks NPC delegates are representative," said To, who won a record 316,468 votes in September's Legislative Council poll. "We [Democrats] joined the fray in the past not because we saw a chance of winning, but because we wanted to voice our platforms and views of China's future development … but no TV election forums have ever been held. No one bothered."
On the election system, To said: "There has not been much change [over the past 15 years]. It remains very conservative. Only those who are obedient [to Beijing] can win."
Wong, the unionist, says Beijing continues to use too high a "safety index" - it allows too little freedom in the contest because it fears pan-democrats may be elected.
"There have been changes over the years. The electorate has grown bigger. Thus, the influence of the central government and its liaison office on the election results could be lessened. Some candidates who may not be totally obedient could have the chance to grab a seat," he said. Wong says the block voting system might need to be replaced sooner or later.
Acknowledging that many Hongkongers are unfamiliar with the local delegates, Wong said: "If some businessmen join the fray and win a seat just to help with their connections and business on the mainland, they might hardly care about their real duties."
However, Wong says the role of deputies has evolved for the better over the years. "Before the handover, NPC delegates hardly received any regard in Hong Kong. It was mainly because society did not have much understanding about the election system. At that time, the NPC seats were a kind of reward given to the traditional patriotic groups."
But now "our society has higher expectations of NPC delegates … in recent years, more professionals and reputable people have run".
Citing examples from the business sector, such as Bernard Chan and veteran financial regulator Laura Cha Shih May-lung - both members of the Executive Council - Wong said their participation helped the delegation win more recognition in the community, and delegates were now helping Hongkongers in a wider way.
"In the past, it was mainly business disputes involving Hongkongers investing in mainland China," he said. "In recent years, more grass-roots people who settle on the mainland have sought our help with housing problems."
But one thing that remained constant, he said, was that mainland authorities were not responsive enough in handling such cases.
Ma said he had an open mind about changing the way deputies are elected and agreed local delegates are becoming more vocal.
"They will speak out on matters of public concern and co-sign letters to mainland authorities when needed. It is different from 15 years ago. They have also participated more widely in NPC affairs, like joining committees and inspecting law enforcement on the mainland," he said.
An example was in November 2010, when nearly 30 Hong Kong deputies wrote jointly to the Supreme People's Court to appeal for leniency for Zhao Lianhai, an activist jailed for 2-1/2 years for "provoking quarrels and making trouble" after he organised a group to seek compensation for families whose children fell ill after drinking milk tainted by the industrial chemical melamine.
Zhao was later released on medical parole.
But the row that followed illustrated some of the limits on the influence of local deputies.
Wang Guangya , director of the State Council's Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, warned against interference with the mainland judiciary under the principle of "one country, two systems".
Asked whether the letter amounted to interference, Wang said: "It depends on the way of expression. Under 'one country, two systems', well water and river water should not mix."
Despite the criticism, Ma said Hong Kong deputies had raised more proposals of a higher quality at the NPC's annual plenary in recent years.
He disagreed with Ng's view that local lawmakers should not stand for the NPC.
"The public hopes that NPC delegates are representative. Lawmakers are also returned by election, which shows that they gain recognition from the community," Ma said.
Local NPC delegates remain split on the idea of setting up an office in the city.
"We badly need a platform for people to reach the delegates," Wong said, while Ma agreed that it would help make deputies more approachable.
But fellow deputy Cheng Yiu-tong, an Exco member and the FTU's honorary president, said Beijing was resistant to that idea. Having two legislative bodies in the city would, he said, put at risk the principle of "one country, two systems".
Until Beijing, the deputies and the Hong Kong government reach a consensus, the wait will go on.Topics: National People's Congress Rita Fan Hsu Lai-Tai Fanny Law Fan Chiu-fun Leung Chun-ying