Now it's official: China's first act when it recovers Hong Kong from Britain at midnight June 30, 1997, will be to dismantle the colony's system of government.
What will come next?Hong Kong residents have been pondering that question since last Wednesday, when the Standing Committee of China's National People's Congress made good on earlier threats by voting to disband Hong Kong's elected legislature and councils when China recovers the colony in 1997.
The decision was a further blow to a populace already jittery about the future, adding a degree of uncertainty that could erode the business confidence that drives Hong Kong's booming economy.
"Any member of the NPC's Standing Committee suffering under the delusion that they did a good day's work . . . had better wake up," the independent daily Eastern Express said in an editorial. "All they have done is to create a big, big headache" for themselves.
China's Communist government has promised to keep Hong Kong capitalist and allow it a "high degree" of autonomy after 1997.
However, "The message they seem to be telling us is: `Forget it. We will do what we want,' " Emily Lau, a popular elected legislator, said in an interview.
Disbanding Hong Kong's legislature and councils would reverse democratic reforms introduced by Gov. Chris Patten, which Beijing says violate the treaties returning Hong Kong to China.
In next year's elections, the last under British rule, citizens of Hong Kong will be able to choose all their legislators, either directly or indirectly. District councils, to be elected next month, will no longer have appointed seats.
China's decision to scrap the reforms was no surprise, but the Communist government has not stated clearly what will happen next.
Beijing "owes the territory a detailed account of what it plans to put in place of the elected structures and when," the South China Morning Post editorialized under the headline "Era of Uncertainty."
Hong Kong's normally volatile stock investors didn't even blink at the Standing Committee vote. The most important market index gained 2.5 percent, then declined slightly the next day on profit-taking.
Shen Guofang, spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, expressed confidence that the decision would not disturb the turnover. "There will be no trouble," he said at a news conference Thursday. "We are capable of making a smooth transition."
So far, China has said Hong Kong will have a new legislature in 1997 based on the "Basic Law," the constitution approved by the National People's Congress to govern the colony.
But it has not announced a date for new elections or said who will govern in the meantime.