Top China official in Hong Kong warns against confronting Beijing in democracy push

Protesters from Hong Kong's Umbrella Movement marching on Feb 1, 2015. -- PHOTO: EPA
Protesters from Hong Kong's Umbrella Movement marching on Feb 1, 2015. -- PHOTO: EPA

HONG KONG (Reuters) - China's top official in Hong Kong has warned democracy campaigners in the former British colony against pushing for independence and confronting Beijing, the official news agency, Xinhua, reported.

Pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong shut down major business districts for 2.5 months last year, demanding open nominations in the next election of the city's chief executive in 2017. Beijing has said it will allow a vote, but only between pre-screened candidates.

In his most extensive comments since police cleared pro-democracy protesters from the city's highways in mid-December, Mr Zhang Xiaoming made clear that Beijing is moving toward tighter control of the global financial hub. "We could not allow any attempt to reject the central authority's jurisdiction over Hong Kong under the pretext of a high degree of autonomy, to advocate 'Hong Kong independence,'or even to overtly confront with the central government through illegal ways," Mr Zhang said on Wednesday at a reception attended by top officials, according to Xinhua.

Mr Zhang, the head of China's Hong Kong liaison office, said on Wednesday it was necessary to rethink the relationship between the two, and that Hong Kong's pro-democracy protests had proved its rule of law could be "very fragile".

Mr Zhang also suggested Beijing could take a renewed interest in patriotic education, a touchy subject that sparked protests in Hong Kong in 2012. "Priority should be given to the history, culture and national conditions of China in the education of the young people so that they could fully understand that the destiny and future of Hong Kong are closely connected to those of the motherland," Mr Zhang said, according to Xinhua.

About 4,000 people attended the reception where Zhang spoke, including Chief Executive Leung Chun Ying, former chief executive Tung Chee Hwa, officials from state firms and foreign diplomats.

Democratic lawmaker Emily Lau said Mr Zhang's comments were"improper and inappropriate" for a mainland official and blurred the boundaries between Hong Kong and China's governance systems. "It seems they want to interfere, they want to take the lead and it's very alarming," Ms Lau said.

There is no mainstream independence movement in Hong Kong, although some activists want a continued campaign of civil disobedience this year to force Beijing to accept fully democratic elections.

Banners seeking to humiliate Hong Kong and Chinese leaders, including President Xi Jinping, festooned streets and government buildings during last year's protests.

Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule in 1997 under a "one country, two systems" formula that gave it wide-ranging autonomy and an independent judiciary. But China retained the ultimate authority.