HONG KONG - Hong Kong's chief executive failed to outline a much-anticipated timetable for democratic reform during his annual policy address yesterday, instead saying a task force will consult with legal experts in Beijing on the issue.
During his speech to the territory's Legislative Council and at a news conference, Tung Chee-hwa said the decision to talk with the central government came at the insistence of Chinese President Hu Jintao during a meeting last month.
"President Hu told me he was very concerned about this," Tung told reporters, who grilled him on the issue after the speech.
Tung said the consultation with Beijing was needed to clarify and agree on a number of what he called "technical and legal issues" before any move was taken toward broadening the package of limited democratic rights Hong Kong enjoys as a semi-autonomous "special administration region" of China.
"There are issues of principle and law that are not clear," he said. "If they are not clear, how can you move forward?"
Predictably, pro-democracy activists were angered by the remarks.
"I hadn't expected much, but this is even worse than my very low expectations," said Audrey Eu, an independent member of Hong Kong's Legislative Council and a prominent voice for political reform in the territory. "This is a clear message nothing can be done unless there is a green light from Beijing. I'm appalled by his policy address."
Independent analysts seemed to share such sentiments.
"In terms of political reform, the policy addressed is a failure," said Sonny Lo, a Hong Kong University political scientist. He predicted that the move would intensify public discontent over Tung's performance and increase activity among political opponents pressing for change.
Pressure for reforms has grown steadily since democracy advocates brought more than 500,000 people onto the streets July 1 to defeat an unpopular anti-subversion bill.
Last fall, Constitutional Affairs Secretary Stephen Lam pledged to outline a timetable by the end of last year for achieving those reforms by 2007. Yesterday, however, he made it clear that Hu had pre-empted that idea.
"Originally we had planned to have a timetable ready in December, but then we had this new development," Lam said. "The central government wanted discussions first."
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.