HONG KONG (Reuters) - China warned Hong Kong on Tuesday that there were limits to its freedom and it should adhere strictly to the law ahead of a planned pro-democracy protest that could end up shutting down part of the financial hub's business district.
As the most liberal city on Chinese soil, the former British colony has grappled with Beijing since its return to Chinese rule in 1997 to preserve its freedoms and capitalist way of life under a "one-country, two-systems" formula.
Over the past year, however, a push by democracy activists to hold protests, as part of a campaign for the right to choose candidates for a poll in 2017 to elect Hong Kong's next leader, has stoked friction and unnerved Beijing leaders fearful of an opposition democrat taking the city's highest office.
China's State Council, or Cabinet, reiterated in a "white paper" on the "one-country, two-systems" formula that the city, despite its wide-ranging autonomy, comes under the control of China and has limits to its freedom. "The high degree of autonomy of Hong Kong is not full autonomy, nor a decentralised power. It is the power to run local affairs as authorised by the central leadership," the Cabinet said in the official report. "There is no such thing called 'residual power'."
Some Hong Kong residents saw the report by China's highest administrative body as a warning to Hong Kong's pro-democracy camp, which has agitated for full democracy in 2017.
A group of activists plan to launch an online "referendum" on political reforms on June 22 before deciding on the scope of its civil disobedience street campaign.
A groundswell of discontent, often manifested in raucous, protests, has grown in Hong Kong and Taiwan over the past year, as anger has mounted over China's increasing assertiveness and interference in local affairs.
The "one-country, two-systems" formula was agreed between Britain and China in the 1980s as part of the deal to return the capitalist coastal enclave to communist China's rule.
"The practice of 'one-country, two-systems' has come to face new circumstances and new problems," the Cabinet said. "Some are even confused or lopsided in their understanding of 'one-country, two-systems' and the Basic Law," the Cabinet said. The Basic Law is Hong Kong's mini-constitution.
Hong Kong's leader Leung Chun Ying shrugged off suggestions the report was a political warning.
Instead, he said it had been prepared by Beijing over the course of a year and had been translated into seven languages so it represented Beijing's considered position on Hong Kong's political landscape, while reiterating China's sovereignty.
China has agreed to let Hong Kong elect its next leader in 2017 in what will be the most far-reaching version of democracy on Chinese soil.
Specific arrangements, however, have yet to be decided including, crucially, whether public nominations of candidates, including opposition democrats, will be allowed.
Senior Chinese officials have already all but ruled out public nominations, saying it is not allowed for in the law and that a small committee of about 1,200 largely pro-Beijing loyalists should choose who gets on the ballot.