HONG KONG • China's third-most powerful leader said yesterday that Beijing had the right to "step in" on Hong Kong's leadership contest, according to local politicians who met him, in remarks fuelling fears of meddling from Communist Party leaders.
The comments by Mr Zhang Dejiang, the head of China's Parliament and its leading official on Hong Kong issues, came after other officials played down rumours that Beijing was interfering in a race pitting China's preferred candidate against a more popular figure.
Under laws governing the former British colony since its return to Chinese rule in 1997, autonomous Hong Kong has the right to choose its chief executive via a 1,200-strong election committee stacked with Beijing loyalists.
The committee is due to vote on March 26 to decide between two former officials and a retired judge to lead the city of 7.3 million people.
But the independence of the election has been questioned, with several election committee members telling the media they had received phone calls from people with ties to the Chinese government trying to influence their votes.
The head of Beijing's representative office in Hong Kong, Mr Zhang Xiaoming, said over the weekend that allegations of intervention were only rumours.
Mr Zhang Dejiang, chairman of the National People's Congress, said it was important for the election to proceed smoothly and stressed the significance of the chief executive's role as a link between Beijing and the Asian financial hub, according to the convener of the Hong Kong delegation to the congress, Ms Maria Tam.
"It is a very important role, so the central government has the right to step in," Ms Tam told reporters in her summary of Mr Zhang Dejiang's comments.
Mr Zhang Dejiang also warned the delegation during the annual parliamentary meetings in Beijing that Hong Kong should not allow politics to dominate life in the city.
He said it was unfortunate "street politics" had become a part of everyday life in Hong Kong while neighbouring Shenzhen city was catching up economically. "It is quite possible that Shenzhen can overtake Hong Kong in two years," Ms Tam cited Mr Zhang Dejiang saying.
This month's election is the first since mass pro-democracy protests rocked Hong Kong in late 2014.
Former Hong Kong civil service head Carrie Lam, seen as Beijing's preferred candidate, is tipped as the favourite in the contest.
Another delegate, the former head of Hong Kong's legislature, Mrs Rita Fan, denied that Beijing was intervening in the race, adding it had the right to voice its opinions.
"As a stakeholder, the central government has a right to express its views, and it hopes people can take its opinions into consideration," Ms Fan said.