The length of the next chief executive's term may sound an academic issue. That it has become a topic of controversy speaks volumes about the political cross-currents in Hong Kong as the post-Tung era looms. And how Beijing handles the issue will shed light on its game plan for the city in the next five years. At issue is whether Tung Chee-hwa's successor should serve a five-year term until 2010 or merely see out the remainder of Mr Tung's term until 2007. The term's length will reflect Beijing's thinking on the nature of the next administration. Officially, Chief Secretary Donald Tsang Yam-kuen will be the next chief executive regardless of his tenure's length, presuming he stands and gets elected. Realistically, he will merely be a caretaker if given a shorter term of office. For Beijing, one advantage of a two-year tenure is that it would avoid a major shake-up of the Executive Council that is likely under a five-year term. Several officials, including Financial Secretary Henry Tang Ying-yen, Secretary for Justice Elsie Leung Oi-sie and Home Affairs Secretary Patrick Ho Chi-ping are likely to go if Mr Tsang is granted a five-year administration. By keeping the team largely unchanged, Beijing would have more time to map out a comprehensive blueprint for the administration beyond 2007. Political parties and tycoons, keen to play kingmaker, would feel cheated if a successor were selected for a full term. A shortened term would also allow the chief executive election scheduled for early 2007 to go ahead as planned. Ongoing consultation over electoral arrangements for 2007 and 2008 could proceed. Importantly, Beijing would be able to test the leadership qualities and loyalty of Mr Tsang while keeping other aspirants for the top post in 2007. This could be vital, as resistance and suspicion towards Mr Tsang remains strong in business and political quarters, particularly in the pro-Beijing camp. However, it is clear that from a legal point of view the next chief executive's term should be five years. Any moves to interpret the Basic Law's provisions, to block legal challenges to a shorter term, will be seen as political expediency. It would be another bad case of politics being put above the law. Yet the signs are growing that Beijing is preparing to pay the political price of opting for the shorter term as a compromise to appease the political aspirants and kingmakers - this at a time when harmony and unity are the buzz words. Pending a formal announcement, Mr Tung will become history. The focus will shift to a game of who's who in the next administration. Whether its term is truncated or not will have profound and far-reaching implications for the power game over the next five years.