The official Xinhua release on yesterday's meeting between President Hu Jintao and Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa covered their discussion of Hong Kong's glowing development on the economic front since July. There was no mention, however, of the Tung administration's further setbacks on the political front, manifested chiefly in the defeat of the pro-government Democratic Alliance for Betterment of Hong Kong in the district council polls on November 23. The issue of reforming Hong Kong's political system was on the agenda. But what was said in private was, once again, condensed into a few lines. They boiled down to a reiteration of Beijing's position - that the system should evolve step by step according to the Basic Law and the city's practical situation. But there was a point in the release that may be significant: Mr Hu's desire for the community to reach a broad consensus on the issue. It is hard to know exactly what Mr Hu meant, but at the very least it can only encourage the debate on political reform. His remark is a reminder that Hong Kong people have differences to bridge if they are to come up with an agreement on political reform that Beijing might be able to consider. Central government officials have often pointed out that there are sharp divisions in the community on when and how the city's path towards greater democracy should be designed and what that design might look like. Critics may say the officials are playing the procrastination game. But why should Beijing chip in to end the bickering when it does not want Hong Kong to be too far ahead of other parts of the country? Hong Kong's political system could easily grind into what the last governor, Chris Patten, described as an administrative gridlock, with a largely elected legislature refusing to co-operate with an unelected chief executive. The government's general inability to play politics deftly over the past six years means that there is a real risk of such a deadlock after next year's Legco elections - and possibly after future elections. Amid the noise that passes as debate on the issue of whether the chief executive and all legislators should be popularly elected in 2007 and 2008, it is disappointing that little attention has been paid to substantive issues of reform. A critical issue is accommodating Beijing's desire for control as the national government playing its part in 'one country, two systems'. While the central government has promised a high degree of autonomy for Hong Kong, it is not prepared to give the city complete autonomy. Its power under the Basic Law of appointing the chief executive is a real one. Beijing would not allow the chief executive to be directly elected if it had no role in the process and its Basic Law power was reduced to a mere matter of ceremony. It is likely it would want to feel assured the election would produce a winner it would find acceptable. Democracy advocates' response to this concern is that Hong Kong people would be wise enough not to elect a chief executive that Beijing does not want to appoint. But can a system be devised that marries Beijing's wishes with the Hong Kong people's desire to elect a person whom they could regard as their true representative? Further, how could Hong Kong's quasi-presidential system be made to work better? How can the accountability system be improved? Should the chief executive be allowed to have party affiliation so he could be assured of support by party colleagues in the legislature? Should the chief executive be obliged to appoint members of the majority party in the legislature to his cabinet? These and many other concrete issues should be canvassed and properly debated in the upcoming consultation on political reform.