Hong Kong's justice secretary said Sunday the government was mistaken in originally ruling the territory's chief executive must serve a five-year term.
Instead, the decision to allow the next chief executive to serve only two years was correct and the change would not damage Hong Kong's rule of law, Justice Secretary Elsie Leung (梁愛詩) said.
"I consider that our earlier position was incorrect," she said in a radio broadcast. "We must therefore admit our mistake and change our view."
Her comments came amid a heated political debate sparked by the abrupt resignation of the chief executive, Tung Chee-hwa (董建華), on March 10, two years before his term was complete.
Leung decided, following consultations with Beijing, that Tung's deputy Donald Tsang (曾蔭權) should serve until a July election is held and the winning candidate will then serve Tung's remaining two-year term, instead of the mandated five years.
"That position has changed, but for good reasons. Legal issues are rarely black and white. They involve a professional judgment call, made after opposing arguments are weighed in the balance," she said in regards to the chief executive's period in office.
"To do otherwise would be disrespectful of the rule of law," she added.
However, critics have charged the decision is a breach of the Basic Law, Hong Kong's post-1997 handover constitution, which was suppose to guarantee that all chief executives serve for five years.
Leung also said Beijing has the power to determine the length of the next chief executive's period in office, adding the mainland did not want to "twist the law to suit its political needs."
"The Basic Law confers a high degree of autonomy on the Hong Kong government but it does not confer absolute autonomy," she said.
"The appointment of the chief executive is clearly the responsibility of the Central People's Government," she added.
China is widely believed to have been stunned by Tung's resignation nor had it groomed his successor to lead the former British colony.
A two-year term would allow Beijing to test the next leader before making the appointment permanent.
Tsang is an early favorite for the poll.
Opposition lawmakers and democrats have warned that Leung's decision would open the government to a court challenge and a judicial review.
But Leung said the dispute will be resolved in accordance with the law.
"Hong Kong and its legal system will rise to the challenge," she added.
Meanwhile, the head of the Electoral Affairs Commission Justice Woo Kwok-hing said the government will press ahead with a smooth election on July 10 even if a judicial review for the term of the office is sought.
Unless a judge orders him to stop, Woo said he will continue with the arrangement for the election of a new leader, who will be selected by a 800-member election committee.