BEIJING (AP) — Beijing's top representative in Hong Kong met Tuesday with local lawmakers to ease tensions between the mainland and its special administrative region, though he warned against a planned protest and said Hong Kongers will never get to nominate their own leadership candidates without central government approval.
The working lunch marked the first meeting between the head of the central government's liaison office and the full membership of Hong Kong's Legislative Council since the former British colony returned to Chinese rule in 1997.
Not all lawmakers attended, however, and Beijing's representative Zhang Xiaoming seemed to dampen the mood further by flatly ruling out the right of Hong Kong residents to nominate their own candidates in future elections for chief executive, Hong Kong's top local leader.
Lee Cheuk-yan Lee, a member of the council's pan-democratic camp, told reporters after the meeting that Zhang's out-and-out rejection calls into question Beijing's commitment to the substance of democracy, and not just its superficial appearance.
"So again, the talk on universal suffrage is actually suggesting that there is not going to be a genuine one," Lee said.
When China regained Hong Kong, it agreed to allow the special administrative region to keep its own political system and Western-style civil liberties such as freedom of speech until 2047. Beijing has pledged to let Hong Kongers pick their chief executive no earlier than 2017 and the entire legislature by 2020, but residents of the city are frustrated that there have been few signs of progress.
Anxiety that Hong Kong will be denied full democracy has grown in recent months after Beijing officials said the city's next leader must be acceptable to the central government.
Many residents fear the rights and freedoms they enjoy will be eaten away by mainland China's growing influence. Further complicating the relationship: City residents are increasingly irritated by a flood of mainland visitors to Hong Kong — 35 million last year alone.
Tuesday's meeting came after tens of thousands of Hong Kongers took to the streets July 1 to demand promised democratic reforms, along with the resignation of their widely-disliked. Beijing-backed leader, Leung Chun-ying, who has been beset by one controversy after another since he took office a year ago.
Zhang said the central government is serious about eventually allowing all Hong Kongers to vote for the chief executive, who is now selected by a small, Beijing-controlled body. But he echoed Beijing's insistence that all candidates must be deemed acceptable by the mainland government.
He also criticized a proposal calling for at least 10,000 people to peacefully block roads in Hong Kong's central business district in July 2014 if the government fails to outline a plan for full democracy.
"No matter how nicely the initiator of the movement put his words, no matter how he packaged the idea or beautified it, illegal is illegal," Zhang said.
Pro-Beijing lawmakers were upbeat about the meeting, with one, Tam Yiu-chung, calling Zhang's remarks "very positive."
Political scientist Sonny Lo of the Hong Kong Institute of Education said the meeting was intended to demonstrate that Beijing is responding to concerns and to tamp down some of the outrage behind this month's massive pro-democracy rally.
Beijing wishes to "demonstrate to the pan-democrats and people of Hong Kong that the central government is heeding the voice of the public," Lo said.