Beijing official's visit to Hong Kong stokes fears over democracy

HONG KONG (AFP) - Campaigners accused Beijing of stifling democracy in Hong Kong on Friday after a senior mainland official said any future leader of the city must not challenge China.

Tension is high over the perceived threat to political reforms in Hong Kong and lack of government transparency, as the public and opposition demand universal suffrage.

"Hong Kong is a local administrative region of China... the Chief Executive must be someone who loves the country and loves Hong Kong," said Li Fei, deputy secretary-general of the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress - China's parliament - who is in Hong Kong on a three-day visit.

"In other words, those who confront the central government cannot be chief executive," he said during a speech to 100 local businessmen and lawmakers.

China has promised the former British colony will see a transition to universal suffrage by 2017.

Under the current electoral system, Hong Kong's chief executive is selected by a committee controlled by Beijing.

But there is public discontent over lack of progress.

"This idea that one cannot be in confrontation with the central authorities is very dangerous and threatening political criterion," Joseph Cheng of campaign group the Alliance for True Democracy said.

"The principal worry in the pro-democratic camp is that despite the offer of universal suffrage, the control on the list of candidates means that the election will not be democratic," Cheng said.

Li's speech comes two days after a report to US Congress members questioned the prospects of democratic reform in Hong Kong.

"Despite official statements of support from Beijing and the Hong Kong chief executive, the continued lack of meaningful progress calls into question Beijing's real intentions. Prospects for universal suffrage by 2017 are dimming," the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission report said.

The city's mini-constitution, the Basic Law, stipulates that election candidates should be nominated by a "broadly representative" nomination committee.

Democrats want the leader to be nominated by the general public and chosen by direct popular vote.

"It would not be proper for the central government to come out and put down all the limitations," Democratic Party chairwoman Emily Lau told AFP.

"The central government should give Hong Kong people space to express themselves and let the SAR government lead the discussion." The Hong Kong government is planning to start a public consultation on the process next month.

Requests by democrats for talks with Li were rejected, Civic Party lawmaker Dennis Kwok - one of just two democrats invited to Friday's lunch - told reporters.

Li and fellow senior official Zhang Rongshun will have several meetings with senior Hong Kong lawmakers and community leaders during their visit.

The city's pro-Beijing chief executive Leung Chun-ying hosted a banquet for them on Thursday.

Beijing's top representative in Hong Kong, Zhang Xiaoming, held unprecedented talks with local legislators in July, which were also criticised as an intervention into the city's affairs and were boycotted by some lawmakers.

Leung's administration has been heavily criticised over its closeness with Beijing and unpopular policies.

A decision last month not to grant a free-to-air licence to Hong Kong Television prompted weeks of protests over lack of transparency, with two rival channels owned by Hong Kong tycoons granted the licence.

Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule in 1997 under an agreement with Britain that grants it semi-autonomous status and enshrines civil liberties not seen in mainland China.

But policies in relation to defence and foreign affairs are administered by Beijing.