HONG KONG (Reuters) - Beijing's top representative in Hong Kong has ruled out open nominations for candidates to become its next leader, the strongest sign yet that China's pledge of democracy for the former British colony by 2017 comes with conditions.
Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule in 1997 with the guarantee of wide-ranging autonomy and an independent judiciary and press under the formula of "one country, two systems".
It is the freest city in China, but every year on the anniversary of the handover, thousands take to the streets demanding fully democratic elections amid mounting fears of increased meddling by Beijing's Communist Party leaders.
Zhang Xiaoming, the head of Beijing's Liaison Office in Hong Kong, said open nominations for the leader, or chief executive, would not be allowed.
Zhang's open letter, sent to a major pro-democracy group, the Civic Party, quoted the city's mini-constitution, the Basic Law, as saying that all candidates could only be nominated by a "broadly representative nominating committee".
"There is no other option," Zhang said in the letter.
That means the nominations will instead come from a small election committee stacked with Beijing loyalists who would essentially veto any opposition candidates from running.
The letter was published on the Liaison Office's website - www.locpg.hk/big5/shouyexinwen/201309/t20130912_7434.asp - amid what observers say is an intensifying propaganda push by Beijing to downplay expectations for democratic polls.
Zhang's comments could raise the political heat in Hong Kong, with pro-democracy groups threatening to seal off the city's central business district next year as part of a campaign of civil disobedience.
The election in 2017 will still be the most far-reaching version of democracy on Chinese soil. But analysts say Beijing's hardening stance suggest a continuing conservatism towards meaningful political reforms under new leader Xi Jinping.
Earlier in the year, a senior Chinese leader also played down hopes that Hong Kong's 2017 election would be democratic.
Qiao Xiaoyang, chairman of the law committee of the National People's Congress, said regardless of the vote, China would not allow someone who "confronts" Beijing to become Hong Kong's leader.
Hong Kong remains a beacon of civil liberties in China, which wants to see self-ruled Taiwan, an island it considers to be a breakaway province, united with the mainland, perhaps under a similar formula.
(Reporting by James Pomfret and Greg Torode; Editing by Nick Macfie)