Compared with the chief executive election, the district council polls and the Legislative Council by-election last year, the upcoming election of 36 local deputies to the National People's Congress is a different ball game. There will be no mass vote-canvassing campaigns or TV debates. Most of the candidates will not run on an all-encompassing election platform, never mind have a 'to-do' list for the next five years in the national legislature, if they are elected. Although the media attaches much importance to these election activities, ordinary people can be forgiven for their feelings of indifference and bewilderment - or even cynicism - towards the polls. This is not just because only 1,231 members in the election panel are eligible to nominate and vote on January 25. It is also because the role and function of local deputies at both the national and domestic levels are still unclear, 10 years after the handover. Other than attending the annual national plenum in spring, and a fact-finding trip to the mainland every year, local NPC deputies do not have clear, regular work programmes. True, some delegates have been forthcoming and assisted requests for help from Hong Kong residents on mainland-related matters such as legal disputes. But local NPC deputies, as an institution, remain something of an oddity in the 'one country, two systems' political structure. A case in point is the ambivalent attitude of both the central authorities and Hong Kong government towards the longstanding demand by NPC deputies to set up their own offices in Hong Kong. Under former chief executive Tung Chee-hwa, the government kept its distance from the deputies. Subtle changes emerged after he resigned. His successor, Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, has been keen to forge closer ties with the pro-Beijing camp. He has held separate sessions with local deputies to the NPC and to the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference in his pre-policy-address consultation exercise. Despite the sea change in mainland-Hong Kong relations, with growing goodwill towards Beijing and greater social and economic interaction since 1997, the role of deputies remains elusive, at times sensitive. Both Beijing and the Hong Kong administration are anxious to avoid turning NPC delegates into another organ of power - be that real or imagined in the public's view. In view of the unique constitutional setting, and differences between the two political systems, the role of NPC deputies will remain under a cloud for some time. That said, positive changes are emerging, as more new faces with diverse backgrounds seek to vie for the posts, which have been traditionally monopolised by the patriotic, pro-Beijing circle. The candidature of former top official Fanny Law Fan Chiu-fun and former KCRC chairman Michael Tien Puk-sun, who are among a number of fresh faces with no traditional ties to the pro-Beijing force, says something about the profound changes in mainland-Hong Kong relations. Admittedly, there will still be limits to the width of political views allowed within the Hong Kong chapter. In the present political atmosphere, it is unlikely that the pan-democrats would be able to pass the political test to 'love the country and love Hong Kong', which was spelled out by a visiting NPC vice-chairman, Sheng Huaren , in Hong Kong last week. But with the departure of long-time pro-Beijing figures, such as Tsang Hin-chi and Ng Hong-mun, the likely emergence of deputies like Mrs Law will help broaden the spectrum of views within the Hong Kong group at the NPC. Given that scenario, the next batch of local NPC deputies will have a better chance of being able to play a more meaningful, useful role by reflecting mainstream views to the nation's highest organ of power. Chris Yeung is the Post's editor-at-large.