Benefits of a three-legged stool
Former political heavyweight Chung Sze-yuen recalled in his memoirs, published in 2001, how he led a team to see Deng Xiaoping in mid-1984 to put the Hong Kong people's case amid the pre-handover jitters.
Representing the Unofficial Members of the Executive and Legislative Council, Dr Chung and his colleagues were bluntly told by Deng that negotiation over the post-1997 fate of Hong Kong was a matter between Beijing and London.
Deng reportedly said: 'There have been talks of the so-called 'three-legged stool'. [There are] not three legs, only two legs.'
As a result, Dr Chung wrote: 'Subsequently, the phrase 'three-legged stool' became the jargon frequently used by the Chinese to discourage any input from Hong Kong people in the talks.'
In the same way that it rejected the validity of the treaties relating to the colonial rule of Hong Kong, Beijing refused to recognise the status of the pre-handover Legco and its members.
Twenty years on and almost seven years after the handover, the interface between the central government and the Hong Kong legislature has been marked by ambivalence and contradiction in the row over constitutional reform.
The political role and status of Legco was called into doubt last week when a team of senior Beijing officials held two sessions in Shenzhen to consult people from different walks of life about a report on democratic development submitted by Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa.
Those invited included members of the National People's Congress, Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference and leading figures from various sectors including business and the media. No Legco members were invited in their official capacity and some dismissed it as an attempt to 'dwarf' the role of the legislature.
Two weeks ago, senior Beijing officials turned down a request from Legco members for a separate session regarding the NPC Standing Committee's interpretation on electoral provisions in the Basic Law. Instead, the members joined hundreds of community leaders, including foreign consuls-general, at a session in a conference hall.
There is no doubting the complexities and sensitivity of the relationship between Legco and the national legislature under the 'one country, two systems' policy. Ties have been further complicated by Beijing's longstanding feud with the pro-democracy camp, which forms a sizeable opposition in Legco.
At a deeper level, it appears that Beijing's ambivalent attitude towards Legco also stems from its unwillingness to confront the constitutional and political reality that it represents the legitimate interests of Hong Kong people.
The present Legco came into being through elections, with its role, powers and responsibilities set out under the Basic Law.
As a key component in the political system under the policy of 'Hong Kong people ruling Hong Kong', the days are long gone when it was seen as an embarrassing and unwelcome leg of the so-called 'three-legged stool'. Under 'one country, two systems', its relationship with Beijing should not be seen in terms of 'us versus them'.
After the July 1 mass rally, Beijing revised its strategy and adopted a more 'hands-on' approach to the issue of democratic development by reaching out to society.
Against that background, it is no longer viable for the central government to avoid dealing directly with Legco - including the democrats - and engaging it in debate on constitutional reform.
Chris Yeung is the Post's editor-at-large