Chinese Vice-Premier Qian Qichen declared last Saturday that there has been no secret deal on the selection of the first chief executive of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR), but how credible does this statement sound to Hong Kong people? At the weekend, the Preparatory Committee plenum made two key decisions on the race, which are in sharp contrast to what committee members and the public understood to be the rules of the game. The first decision says that all those interested in standing should make clear their intention before the formation of the 400-strong selection committee, scheduled for November 1. And the second decision states the candidates for the top job will be nominated in secret. Those who have followed the development of the chief executive election closely are puzzled by the requirement for candidates to announce their intention to stand before the selection committee is formed. The official position has always been that nominations would start after the selection committee was formed. This is a well-understood principle and no one has heard of any discussion to advance the timetable. More disturbing is the second decision which is clearly out of step with the chief executive sub-group's proposals. Its original recommendation, drafted after heated debate, was for the candidates to secure nominations from at least 50 selection committee members whose names would be made public to bolster the transparency of the process. People are confused, if not sceptical, by the sudden change. Lingering doubts won't serve Beijing well when it comes to boosting the credibility and legitimacy of the election. Sceptics will say Beijing is trying to manipulate the poll. They will say that by requiring all candidates to indicate their intention to run before the formation of the selection committee, the Preparatory Committee's leadership can choose the 400 committee members in such a way that most of them will only vote for Beijing's choice. To them, the explanation that the deadline is meant to make sure those interested in joining the fray won't be selected to join the selection committee simply doesn't sound plausible. If that is the case, a solution is for the Preparatory Committee to set aside more names for a reserve to replace anyone who, because of his or her candidature, has to step down from the selection body. While the official explanation for the decision was that it didn't want to make the nomination similar to an open ballot, individual Preparatory Committee members said the move was prompted by those, including prominent businessmen, who objected to open nominations for fear they might bet on the wrong horse. By making the nomination secret, Beijing can address the concern of a small group of people, but the price is undermining public faith in the poll. Some Preparatory Committee members have rightly pointed out that open nomination was a natural mechanism to prevent fraud. The current arrangement will induce more unfounded gossip and misunderstanding. For China, such a lack of faith in the government of the Special Administrative Region is the last thing it needs. Therefore, the director of the State Council's Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office Lu Ping is wrong in saying that it is meaningless to make the nomination open. At issue is not how popular a candidate is among the 400 members, it is about how fair the election is seen by the public, despite its limitations. It is fine for Mr Qian to pledge that there's no secret deal but, with such arrangements, his words will not impress the community. Worse still, the governability of the chosen chief may be questioned.