British minister says democracy 'vital to Hong Kong's stability'

An elevated view from Fei Ngo Shan Mountain shows residential buildings in the Kowloon region of Hong Kong on Jan 12, 2010. British Foreign Office Minister Hugo Swire said Hong Kong's progress towards universal suffrage was "vital to its future stabi
An elevated view from Fei Ngo Shan Mountain shows residential buildings in the Kowloon region of Hong Kong on Jan 12, 2010. British Foreign Office Minister Hugo Swire said Hong Kong's progress towards universal suffrage was "vital to its future stability" and that electoral reforms must offer voters a "genuine choice", in remarks likely to anger Beijing. -- FILE PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

HONG KONG (AFP) - British Foreign Office Minister Hugo Swire said Hong Kong's progress towards universal suffrage was "vital to its future stability" and that electoral reforms must offer voters a "genuine choice", in remarks likely to anger Beijing.

China has promised the former British colony it will see a transition to universal suffrage by 2017, though critics say little or no progress has been made on the prickly issue as the deadline draws closer.

In an opinion piece published in the South China Morning Post on Saturday, Mr Swire said it was up to the governments of Hong Kong and China, and the people of Hong Kong, to decide what their model of democracy with universal suffrage would look like.

"There is no perfect model anywhere in the world, but the important thing is that the people of Hong Kong have a genuine choice to enable them to feel they have a real stake in the outcome," said Mr Swire, a minister of state at the Foreign Office.

Debate over Hong Kong's electoral reforms has revolved around how candidates will be chosen to stand for the 2017 chief executive election, with fears Beijing will restrict voters' choices.

Current Hong Kong leader Leung Chun Ying, who is charged with overseeing the transition, was voted into office in March last year by a committee composed of just 1,200 of the city's seven million people, mainly Hong Kong's pro-mainland business elite.

Even if the elections are held as promised, the pro-reform lobby fears Beijing will try to weaken the influence of the feisty pro-democracy camp, which has dominated previous legislative elections.

Laying out his views on why "the transition to universal suffrage is in the best interests of Hong Kong, and vital to its future stability and prosperity", Mr Swire said "Britain stands ready to support in any way we can".

He added that certainty over Hong Kong's constitutional future was important to business and investor confidence in the city, which is home to about 1,000 British businesses.

"Like many others in the international community, the UK therefore has a big economic stake in seeing Hong Kong continue as the prosperous, stable and energetic centre that we see today," he said ahead of International Democracy Day on Sunday.

His comments are likely to irritate Beijing, which last month accused Washington's consul-general in Hong Kong, Mr Clifford Hart, of meddling in China's internal affairs after he made similar remarks on looking forward to "progress towards genuine universal suffrage".

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.