It should come as no surprise to Hongkongers to see Qiao Xiaoyang, a top National People's Congress official, setting the tone for the debate on the city's political reform even before the government kick-starts the consultation on how to elect the chief executive by universal suffrage in 2017.
Qiao, the chairman of the Law Committee under the NPC Standing Committee, told almost 40 pro-establishment lawmakers at a closed-door seminar in Shenzhen on Sunday that any members of the opposition camp who insist on confronting the central government could not become chief executive.
He said: "If a person who confronts the central government becomes the chief executive, it can be expected that the tension between the two governments will be heightened, the close connection between Hong Kong and the mainland will be damaged, and that Hong Kong society will be torn apart."
In the wake of growing pressure from the pan-democratic camp to guarantee "genuine universal suffrage" for the chief-executive race in 2017 and the "Occupy Central" plan gaining momentum, Beijing felt it had little choice but to take the initiative in setting the parameters for the debate on universal suffrage.
Those familiar with the history of the Communist Party know that the last thing it wants is to be forced into passivity.
A lawmaker who attended the seminar on universal suffrage for Hong Kong said Qiao indicated that the central government had been "forced" to weigh in to the political-reform debate at such an early stage, citing four recent developments in Hong Kong.
First were the questions raised by pan-democrats about the government delaying the consultation process after Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying's policy address in January. This was followed by University of Hong Kong law professor Benny Tai Yiu-ting planning for the Occupy Central movement to rally at least 10,000 people to block roads in Central on July 1, to put pressure on Beijing to keep its promise of allowing genuine universal suffrage in 2017.
The third development came on March 6, when Yu Zhengsheng , a member of the Politburo Standing Committee, said it "would not be good for Hong Kong or the country if opposition forces ruled Hong Kong", sparking controversy about a possible screening mechanism.
The fourth factor prompting Beijing to enter the debate was pan-democrat lawmakers forming the Alliance for True Democracy last week.
"Qiao said the Basic Law and the decision made by the NPC Standing Committee were very clear on universal suffrage, but that recent developments had complicated the issue," the lawmaker said. "That is the reason he wants to set the tone for the debate early on."
According to a decision by the Standing Committee in 2007, universal suffrage will be allowed for the election of the chief executive in 2017, and for the Legislative Council thereafter. And Article 45 of the Basic Law calls for a "broadly representative" nominating committee to forward chief-executive candidates for a popular vote in accordance with "democratic procedures".
During the seminar, Qiao also said candidates for the chief-executive election in 2017 had to be nominated by a newly formed committee "as a whole", instead of by individual committee members, as in previous chief-executive polls.
The nominating committee would follow "majority rule" in deciding who to put forward for "one man, one vote". Pan-democrats fear their candidates could be filtered out through this procedure.
Qiao, the mainland's top authority on Hong Kong's mini-constitution, said the nominating committee might be formed with reference to the methods used to nominate previous chief executives.
In last year's chief-executive race, the city's leader was chosen by the 1,200-member Election Committee, made up mainly of Beijing-loyalist businesspeople and professionals. A total of 249,499 voters were entitled to cast ballots in the subsector elections of the committee.
While Qiao appeared to have ruled out the possibility of entering the chief-executive race for many pan-democrats, there was also a suggestion there could be some flexibility in the entry requirements.
"Qiao said people can criticise the central government and the Hong Kong government. But that must not reach the point of life or death," said one pro-establishment lawmaker who had been at the Shenzhen meeting.
The five steps needed to amend the law
1 The chief executive shall make a report to the National People’s Congress Standing Committee (NPCSC) as regards to whether there is a need to make an amendment.
2 NPCSC shall, in accordance with the provisions of Articles 45 and 68 of the Hong Kong Basic Law, make a determination in light of the actual situation in Hong Kong and in accordance with the principle of gradual and orderly progress.
3 The bills on the amendments to the methods for selecting the chief executive and for forming the Legislative Council and its procedures shall be introduced by the government to the Legco and will require endorsement by a two-thirds majority of lawmakers.
4 Such amendments will require consent of the chief executive.
5 Amendments to the method of selecting the chief executive shall be reported to NPCSC for approval while changes to the method for forming the Legco shall be reported to NPCSC for the record.