As the left-wing newspaper Wen Wei Po said in an editorial yesterday, the path for Hong Kong in the next 400 days is now set. This is probably true. The displacement of the Legislative Council by a caretaker legislature is not the only item to emerge from the weekend's two-day Preparatory Committee plenum. In addition, there is now a clearer picture of which players China will be willing to accept in the political structure. Along with its final verdict on the Legislative Council elected last year, the Chinese Government has imposed de facto criteria for members of the Selection Committee and the provisional legislature. According to China's top authority on Hong Kong policy, Lu Ping, those who opposed the idea of the caretaker legislature would not qualify to sit on the two bodies. Mr Lu, the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office director, argued that opponents should not sit on the 400-member Selection Committee because its two major tasks were to choose the chief executive and select the provisional legislature. The new political criteria imply that the 19 Democratic Party legislators, small 'l' liberals and independents who have said no to the provisional legislature will be denied a place on the two bodies; and a substantial number of Hong Kong's current legislators will have to pack their bags by the handover. It also means the eligibility of some of China's own advisers such as National People's Congress deputies Liu Yiu-chu and Elsie Leung Oi-sie may be in doubt, despite the fact that all the 20-odd local NPC deputies are supposed to have a seat on the Selection Committee under the Basic Law. By ruling out dissenting voices in these power bases, even though the small number could not alter the balance of power, Beijing has laid down the limits for political advocacy in the lead-up to 1997 and beyond. The tough stance of Beijing in dealing with alternative political voices, even within its own camp, does not bode well for political dissonance in the future Special Administrative Region (SAR). The irony is that not long ago the Preparatory Committee's sub-group on the Selection Committee adopted a much simpler set of criteria for members of the provisional legislature. Under its criteria, members were only required to be permanent residents, pay allegiance to the SAR and support the Basic Law. By imposing political correctness as another de facto requirement Beijing is more unlikely to be able to mend fences with the Democrats - whose core leaders have already been labelled by China as subversive - even if it wished to do so. It will also be more difficult for second-or third-line members of the Democratic Party to try to improve their ties with Beijing because of their party's opposition to the provisional legislature. Instead, the depth of mutual hostility between China and the Democrats, as well as the other like-minded liberals, is set to deepen. The polarisation of the local political scene has become inevitable as the door for moderate-minded liberals and democrats to participate in the handover process is now virtually closed. As some government officials, executive councillors and pro-China leaders have privately admitted, the hostility between China and the Democrats will be a central issue in the transitional period. Failure to resolve the acrimony will only breed uncertainty and instability. The endorsement of the caretaker legislature plan and the exclusion of dissidents in the legislative body, which was strongly condemned by the Democrats and the liberals yesterday, will only serve to deepen that uncertainty. It seems certain that the Democrats and some liberals will have no future in the new political power game, at least in the short run. Instead they will become major opposition forces outside the political structure, where many of them came from. Despite repeated assurances by the Chinese Government that Hong Kong will have democracy after the handover, the hardline stance of Beijing when dealing with people holding different political views has given rise to more scepticism. The remarks made by Mr Lu have also made a mockery of the plan by a sub-group to come to the territory next month to consult a wide number of people on who should sit on the Selection Committee. Speaking at the closing of the plenum on Sunday, the committee chairman Qian Qichen specifically addressed the issue of democracy and confidence to counter criticism against China. He cited the instructions of patriarch Deng Xiaoping and argued against 'mechanically copying political systems in Western countries' in the SAR. Few disagreed, and again few will challenge his statement that the Governor has been vested with absolute power for more than 150 years of colonial rule. Many should also welcome the remarks that there will be real democracy after the handover when Hong Kong is to be run by the people of Hong Kong with a high-degreeof autonomy. Hong Kong people, however, do not have to wait until after July 1 next year to contemplate whether the promises are being translated into action. Each step the Preparatory Committee takes in paving the way for the establishment of the SAR is being closely watched in Hong Kong and the world at large. In the face of the conservative mindset of the Chinese Government and other uncertainties, such as the tension over Taiwan, it would be unrealistic to expect a sudden reversal to a more liberal Hong Kong policy. But a set of genuine electoral arrangements within the parameters of the Basic Law and in the spirit of the policy of 'Hong Kong people ruling Hong Kong', and a high degree of autonomy are what Hong Kong people have been promised. There should not be any more twists which mean that democratic development, already set at a prudent and gradual manner under the Basic Law, will be rolled back even before the inauguration of the SAR.