Beijing's fear that it will lose control of Hong Kong must be allayed if there is to be an overhaul of the electoral system for the crucial 2016 Legislative Council poll, academics say.
A five-month government consultation launched in December is gathering views on the 2016 poll, as well as the election for chief executive in 2017, when the city chooses its leader by universal suffrage for the first time. While most of the debate has been about 2017, scholars say a more democratic Legco is needed in 2016 ahead of 2020, when the legislature is due to be chosen by universal suffrage.
Political scientists, including Chinese University's Ma Ngok, want to see an "irreversible force of change" in 2016 which begins the process of sweeping away the 30 trade-based seats elected by a handful of voters and dominated by Beijing loyalists. They say Beijing needs to understand that rather than costing it control of the city, the loss of functional constituencies would bring better governance.
But a Beijing-loyalist lawmaker hit back, saying Beijing's fear was not a loss of control but a biased Legco that would leave the government "hamstrung" and undermine business interests.
Both Ma and Dixon Sing Ming, an associate professor at the University of Science and Technology, say the existence of functional seats in the 70-strong legislature makes it easier for the central government to influence Legco decisions.
Lawmaker Tam Yiu-chung, chairman of the Beijing-loyalist Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, countered that the present electoral system gave a voice to groups that would not be properly represented through a fully directly elected legislature.
Just 240,000 voters in 28 constituencies based on trades and business sectors elect the 30 lawmakers. Five lawmakers elected by a city-wide ballot are also considered functional-sector lawmakers, while 35 more represent geographical constituencies.
Lawmakers' motions, though not those put forward by the government, must win a majority in both the functional and geographical sectors to pass.
Tam, a member of the committee that drafted the Basic Law, said the voting system was designed to ensure "balanced participation" in the legislature.
"If all lawmakers were elected from geographical constituencies, would it be tilted towards one side?" Tam asked. He said Beijing's concerns were not about control "but more of a worry about the administration being hamstrung".
"Functional lawmakers keep close contact with the members and organisations they represent," Tam said. "There are different sectors in society, and they cannot be [adequately represented by members] returned through direct elections."
But Ma and Sing were unconvinced by Tam's comments.
Sing questioned the argument about populism and fears it would lead to out-of-control government spending "because the Basic Law requires the government to 'strive to achieve a fiscal balance', and we don't have strong labour unions" calling for increased spending.
Last year, Ma and a group of academics advising the pan-democratic Alliance for True Democracy proposed that the 35 functional seats should be slashed to 20 and merged into three broader constituencies in 2016. They said the number of directly elected seats should rise to 60: 35 in geographical constituencies; 25 by city-wide poll.
Sing supported the idea. He suggested that having lawmakers elected by city-wide poll would open the door for people unable to commit to full-time politics or work to build support in a geographical constituency to win elections, alleviating concerns business and professional groups would be left out in the cold.
He said similar systems in Japan and Germany had allowed a wide range of representation in their parliaments.
Tomorrow: how narrow is the electorate for the functional seats?