China has warned that a plan by pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong to use a special election as a de facto referendum on democratic reform is a threat to stability in the former British colony.
While Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule in 1997, it maintains a separate political system and enjoys Western-style civil liberties typically denied on the mainland. But Beijing has continued to deny full democracy. Hong Kong's leader is chosen by an 800-member committee stacked with pro-China figures and its legislature is half elected, half picked by special interest groups.
Pro-democracy activists have argued for years that the wealthy financial hub of 7 million people is mature enough to choose its own leaders. In their latest campaign, five opposition legislators — one from each of Hong Kong's five major electoral districts — resigned in January, triggering a special election. Opposition parties plan to field candidates in the by-election, hoping to turn the territory-wide contests into a de facto referendum on democratic reform.
"There are political groups that have launched the so-called 'five district referendum campaign,' even proposing sensational and extreme slogans like 'civic uprising' and 'liberating Hong Kong,'" Peng Qinghua, the head of China's liaison office in Hong Kong, said when he met with Hong Kong delegates on the sidelines of the annual meeting of China's parliament in Beijing on Saturday.
"This is a total violation of mainstream public opinion that wants stability, harmony and development," Peng said. His comments were broadcast on Hong Kong television.
In a more veiled criticism, speaking to the Hong Kong delegates on Sunday, Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping urged locals to "promote the gradual development of Hong Kong's political system together by communicating rationally and discussing the matter with a practical mindset," according to Peng. The meeting was closed to the media.
China first lashed out at the referendum campaign in a statement in January, calling it a challenge to its authority. Hong Kong's pro-Beijing parties have said they will boycott the May 16 elections.
Former Hong Kong legislator Rita Fan, now a member of the National People's Congress Standing Committee, told reporters Saturday that the campaign was a "farce" and a waste of taxpayer dollars. The Hong Kong government estimates the election will cost 159 million Hong Kong dollars ($20.5 million).
The main spokeswoman for the referendum campaign said democratic reform isn't a radical idea.
"This moderate issue is the desire of most Hong Kongers. If the central government is sincere about implementing genuine universal suffrage in Hong Kong, what does it have to fear in public opinion?" pro-democracy legislator Audrey Eu said in a statement.
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