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Beijing chairman of Hong Kong's basic law committee takes a look at Portuguese democracy

Li Fei visits sunshine isle of Madeira to find out how autonomous regions that elect their own legislatures work with the Lisbon government

A top Beijing official responsible for mapping out Hong Kong's constitutional future has just returned from a visit to one of the world's most picturesque holiday islands.

But unlike most visitors to the sun-kissed Portuguese island of Madeira, Li Fei wasn't in pursuit of a sun tan.

In a week that has seen a former top Hong Kong judge call for discussions to start on the SAR's post-one country, two systems future, the has learned that Li, secretary general of the National People's Congress Standing Committee and chairman of the Hong Kong Basic Law Committee, was on a mission to find out how two tiny autonomous regions relate to Portugal's central authorities in Lisbon.

The Atlantic Ocean islands of Madeira and Azores both elect legislatures by universal suffrage but, crucially, Lisbon holds the purse strings.

The six-member mainland delegation, led by Li, met with the president of Madeira, the head of its Legislative Assembly and representatives of the Portuguese republic based there.

Legislative Assembly president Tranquada Gomes, who received the delegation on November 17, told the that the group raised questions about "the parliament, the electoral law, the political responsibility of the government in relation to the parliament, the legislative capacity of the government and its administrative status."

Gomes said universal suffrage was also a topic of discussion during the meeting, which lasted nearly two hours and was conducted in Putonghua and Portuguese. He noted that there were a few similarities between Madeira and the former Portuguese enclave of Macau and Hong Kong.

"In terms of external policy, Macau and Hong Kong, like Madeira, don't have specific powers … But Madeira doesn't have as much autonomy as Macau or Hong Kong.

"Unlike these regions, we don't have our own courts or our own money," he said.

According to the representative of the Portuguese republic in Madeira, Ireneu Cabral Barreto, the delegation was particularly interested in his role.

They also showed keen interest in the relationship between the Legislative Assembly and the regional government and the different steps in the regional legislative process.

The delegation also held meetings with officials in Lisbon and the northern second city of Porto.

Questions the put to the National People's Congress, about the delegation's reasons for visiting Madeira, went unanswered, and Li Fei could not be reached for comment.

Wang Yu, associate professor at the One Country Two Systems Research Centre at the Macau Polytechnic Institute, described Li Fei's visit to Madeira as a sign of Beijing's willingness to learn from other countries' autonomous regions, especially at a time when the political system in Hong Kong had experienced "some problems".

"The autonomy of Madeira has been quite successful and they might want to learn from them and use their system as a reference for 'one country, two systems'," said Wang.

Former centre director Ieong Wan Chong said Li Fei's visit to Portugal was largely due to historical links.

The Macau-based scholar said Beijing could learn from the universal suffrage in Madeira, although he noted that it was unlikely to copy the political system in the autonomous region.

Professor Lau Siu-kai, a vice-chairman of the semi-official Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macau Studies, recalled that when Beijing put forward the "one country, two systems" policy to resolve the Hong Kong issue in the early 1980s, it studied other places with a "high degree of autonomy", including Madeira and Azores.

Asked whether Beijing might be considering a trade-off, giving more political autonomy to Hong Kong and Macau, but tightening up on their financial resources, veteran China watcher Johnny Lau Yui-siu said that "according to China's political culture, they will try to find out the factor that is favourable to the central government, and not to Hong Kong and Macau. But at which point they will [do that] I don't know."

The Basic Law - or mini-constitutions - of Hong Kong and Macau state that the status of the two places will remain unchanged for 50 years, that time up in 2047 in the case of Hong Kong in 2049 for Macau.

"Needless to say, some officials and scholars in China are thinking about post-2047 Hong Kong, but as far as I know no one is actually working on that subject yet," Lau Siu-kai said.

Last week Henry Litton, a former judge of Hong Kong's Court of Final Appeal, underlined the urgent need to start planning for 2047 and warned that Hong Kong's judiciary was "sleepwalking" towards 2047.


This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Beijing sees how the Portuguese do democracy