Chinese Premier Li Keqiang delivers a speech Monday during the opening of the first session of the 13th National People’s Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. (EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

BEIJING — China may have formally tightened the screws on Hong Kong on Monday by eliminating a reference to the people of the territory governing themselves, in a key report delivered by Premier Li Keqiang at the opening of the annual meeting of the country’s parliament.

In a long address to the National People’s Congress, Li set out the government’s detailed report on its achievements over the past year and the challenges ahead.

The text on many issues is usually very similar from one year to the next, but subtle differences in language sometimes yield important clues as to Communist Party thinking.

This year, there was one striking omission, quickly spotted by reporters from Hong Kong.

Describing the principle of "one country, two systems" under which Hong Kong has been governed since the handover from British rule, the 2017 report said: “under which the people of Hong Kong govern themselves, the people of Macao govern themselves, and both regions enjoy a high degree of autonomy.”

That entire phrase was eliminated this year.

Anson Chan, who served as the territory’s top bureaucrat during the handover from British to Chinese rule, said the omission was significant and yet another affirmation that “whatever autonomy Hong Kong enjoys is for Beijing to give and take away at will.”

“With its growing economic and geopolitical clout, Beijing is not even bothering to keep up the pretense that ‘one country, two systems’ — with the Hong Kong people ruling Hong Kong — is alive and well,” she wrote in an email.

“I fear that with the institutional safeguard removed and the fact that Xi can serve indefinitely, he will tighten his grip over Hong Kong and continue to undermine the rule of law, our core values and way of life,” she added. “Universal suffrage will recede even further into the future.”

But Rita Fan, a member of the outgoing Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, said Hong Kong people did not need to read too much into the omission, because references to Hong Kong people ruling Hong Kong and the high degree of autonomy were state policies and included in the Basic Law governing the territory.

“It’s not just reflected clearly in the Basic Law, but it’s also from the constitution of our country. So there’s no need to repeat this every year. In fact, it’s not going to change,” she told reporters. President Xi himself has said on a number of occasions that ‘one country, two systems’ is the policy of this country and it will not change. So I don’t think we need to worry about that or read too much into something.”

Tens of thousands of people took to the streets of Hong Kong in 2014 to call for full democracy in the territory, but the “Umbrella Movement” failed to win any concessions from the governments of Hong Kong and China.

Since then, experts say, Beijing has steadily tightened its grip on Hong Kong and chipped away at the autonomy it has enjoyed under "one country, two systems.” Pro-democracy politicians said the latest wording was only another part of that process.

“It is an obvious gesture to solidify Beijing’s increasingly intrusive role in Hong Kong’s own domestic affairs and continue the erosion of Hong Kong’s autonomy,” said Avery Ng, a pro-democracy activist and chairman of the League of Social Democrats in Hong Kong. “This small omission is a big step backward.”

Andy Chan, the convener of the Hong Kong National Party, called the “one country, two systems” model a trap.

“This is a plot written before 1997,” he said. “The Chinese Communist Party is colonizing Hong Kong, and will eventually turn Hong Kong into China.”

In both 2017 and 2018, the central government expressed support for the chief executives of both Hong Kong and Macao in exercising “law-based governance,” growing the economy and promoting social harmony. In 2017, the list included the phrase “advancing democracy,” and in 2018, “progressively advancing democracy.”

But in reality, experts say, Beijing has decided that democracy in Hong Kong is a dangerous idea that needs to be quashed. The territory’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, was elected last year by a 1,200-member Election Committee packed with Beijing loyalists.