When China's top legislature gave the green light in December to universal suffrage for the chief executive and Legislative Council elections, by 2017 and 2020 respectively, it was hailed as a breakthrough in ending the protracted political row in Hong Kong. Fears raised by the pan-democrats about whether this would actually happen, and whether the 'one person, one vote' system introduced would be 'fake universal suffrage' have been dismissed as overly pessimistic. Yet, their fears may not be unfounded. On Thursday, Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen hinted that functional constituency elections could be preserved - following modifications to electoral methods - after a system of universal suffrage is in place. He told legislators at a question-time session that some people have insisted that functional constituency elections could be modified to make them consistent with the principle of universal suffrage. Citing the Basic Law requirement of a two-thirds majority support from the legislature for constitutional changes, Mr Tsang said there needed to be a strong case to persuade most lawmakers to agree to eliminate all functional constituency seats. Half the Legco seats are now returned by functional constituencies; the other half from geographical constituencies. This ratio will remain unchanged until at least 2012. Mr Tsang's remarks fell in line with comments by Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office deputy director Zhang Xiaoming earlier this year. Mr Zhang raised some eyebrows when he spoke of the importance of functional constituencies, citing economic data. Taken together, he said, functional constituencies represented 90 per cent of the city's gross domestic product. They, and universal suffrage were not necessarily in conflict, he added. Mr Tsang has not said how he believes functional constituency elections could be modified to allow for universal and equal rights. One of his top advisers in the Executive Council, Tsang Yok-sing, has his doubts. The former chairman of the Democratic Alliance for Betterment of Hong Kong said functional polls would not meet the principle of fair and equal suffrage, even if every member of the city's workforce were allowed to vote in one of the 30 sectors. James Tien Pei-chun, who chairs another major pro-government force, the Liberal Party, also said he preferred replacing functional constituency polls with geographical elections. If such people do not favour prolonging the life of functional constituencies, it is because the case for keeping an unfair and unequal system is morally feeble and politically unsustainable. Worse still, the trade-based electoral system hinders consensus building in policymaking. And it is hardly consistent with the goal of universal suffrage, as laid down in the Basic Law. Both Tsang Yok-sing and Mr Tien are fully aware of the reality that any political party must face the test of the ballot box for support. Results of previous geographical polls show they have nothing to fear from the pan-democratic camp in direct elections. The chief executive said there was still plenty of time to discuss the fate of functional constituency elections. This means the functional constituency system can remain largely intact for the 2012 election. But needlessly prolonging the debate can only add to the feelings of mistrust and suspicion between the government and the pan-democratic camp. This will not be conducive to reaching a consensus on the electoral arrangements in 2012, which would have marked a significant step forward in the journey to full democracy by 2017 and 2020. Chris Yeung is the Post's editor-at-large.