By James Pomfret
HONG KONG (Reuters) - The head of China's parliament warned on Thursday that importing western-style democracy for a planned direct election in Hong Kong in 2017 could lead to "disastrous" results, a delegate who attended the closed-door meeting said.
Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule in 1997 with wide-ranging autonomy, an independent judiciary and relatively free press under the formula of "one country, two systems" - along with an undated promise of full democracy, an issue never broached by the British during 150 years of colonial rule.
China has agreed to let Hong Kong elect its next leader in 2017 in what will be the most far-reaching version of democracy on Chinese soil. Specific arrangements, however, have yet to be decided including, crucially, whether public nominations of candidates including opposition democrats will be allowed.
In a sign of Beijing's hardening stance, however, Zhang Dejiang, the head of China's parliament, or National People's Congress (NPC), told Hong Kong delegates attending the annual NPC meetings in Beijing that western-style democracy couldn't simply be transported to Hong Kong.
"You cannot just move or copy (the electoral system) from abroad, otherwise you might very easily find it can't adapt to the local environment and become a democracy trap... and possibly bring a disastrous result," said Ma Fung-kwok, a Hong Kong deputy to the NPC, citing comments made by Zhang in the two-hour meeting.
Ma didn't give any specifics on what such a disaster might be. China's state media also didn't immediately report the comments by Zhang, one of China's most powerful men on the seven-man Politburo Standing Committee.
Other delegates in the meeting said Zhang had re-emphasized three key criteria for the poll, including that candidates must "love" China and abide by the city's mini-constitution that states all candidates must be approved by a "broadly representative nominating committee" that would more than likely be dominated by pro-Beijing loyalists.
"This direct electoral system cannot damage the motherland's sovereignty, safety and future development, nor damage the China-Hong Kong relationship," said Rita Fan, an NPC delegate who also attended the meeting, citing comments by Zhang.
Pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong have grown increasingly embittered by this "fake democracy" and have threatened to seal off the city's business district in a so-called "Occupy Central" campaign of civil disobedience this summer unless Beijing allows open and public nominations.
Fan added that while Zhang didn't mention the Occupy Central movement directly, the underlying meaning of his comments was clear.
(Additional reporting by Alice Woodhouse)