Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa has been criticised for asking members of a panel tasked with choosing local delegates to the National People's Congress (NPC) to endorse two sets of election rules by applause. Although he was quick to realise he had erred, on being challenged by Frederick Fung Kin-kee, leader of the Association for Democracy and People's Livelihood (ADPL), and then called a vote, the damage to his image was already done. Mr Tung might just want to foster a spirit of unity by following what is considered a normal practice on the mainland. But he should have known that voting by applause has never been a feature of the local culture. Rather, the practice is very much frowned upon here. Nor should he have assumed there would be no dissent. By asking the panel to vote by applause, Mr Tung inadvertently reinforced the panel's public image as a 'rubber stamp', even though some members were determined to be themselves by voting against the rules or abstaining. To be fair, the current method of choosing the NPC delegates is the most open ever. When Hong Kong was under British rule, the delegates were hand-picked by Beijing on the advice of the local branch of Xinhua (the New China News Agency). Now that Hong Kong has become a Special Administrative Region of China, the central government has allowed the population to have a bigger, though still limited, say in choosing the delegates. Instead of direct appointment by Beijing, the delegates are chosen by a 424-member selection panel comprising Chinese citizens who are members of the Selection Committee originally formed to choose the chief executive. Yet, the mode of election is still far from the ideal of full democracy because the panel members are all appointed and pro-democracy forces have been excluded. The dissenters are unhappy that the rules do not even require candidates to declare criminal records or govern the contenders' lobbying behaviour. Although the election is held in Hong Kong, it is not subject to any local laws against election frauds. Nor have the rules specified any penalty for breaches. The election rules were drawn up as an interim measure to select delegates to the ninth NPC now in session. It is hoped the central government will heed local views in drafting the rules for future elections. Under the Chinese constitution, the NPC is the supreme governing body of China. The election of delegates to such an august body should therefore be taken seriously by everyone. It is only fitting that the most scrupulous rules should be applied to ensure the election is clean and honest. Indeed, just how the local NPC delegates should be chosen is also an issue which deserves serious consideration. On the mainland, different levels of governments have corresponding people's congresses. At present, only delegates to the people's congresses at the county level are directly elected. At the provincial and national levels, delegates to the respective congresses are indirectly elected by congress deputies at the levels beneath them. Under 'one country, two systems', the people's congress system is not applied in the SAR at the local level; it will only send delegates to the NPC. This opens the question as to whether Hong Kong's NPC delegates should be directly or indirectly elected. Professor Joseph Cheng Yu-shek of the Contemporary China Research Centre, City University, says that since NPC delegates on the mainland are not directly elected, it is unthinkable that the SAR may be allowed to select its delegates by one-man-one-vote, although this may be championed as a long-term goal for the country. To him, having a selection panel to choose the delegates is a practical and realistic solution for the time being. The challenge for Hong Kong is to improve the way the selection panel is formed and exercises its powers to ensure it is as representative as possible. The Selection Committee, from which the NPC selection panel is formed, consists of members drawn from four sectors: industrial, commercial and financial; the professions; labour, grass-roots, religious and other sectors; former political figures, Hong Kong deputies to the NPC, and representatives of Hong Kong members of the National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference. While the sectors play a role in making nominations, Selection Committee members are appointed by the central government in their individual capacity and are therefore not bound to vote according to the wishes of the sectors they purport to represent. Professor Cheng says one possible improvement is for the sectors to elect their own representatives to sit on the Selection Committee who would vote according to the will of their sectors. Such a change would greatly democratise the operation of the Selection Committee and change the political culture for the better, he says.