HONG KONG – China’s third most powerful leader said Monday that Beijing has the right to “step in” to Hong Kong’s leadership contest, according to local politicians who met him, in remarks fueling fears of meddling from Communist Party leaders.
The comments by Zhang Dejiang, the head of China’s parliament and its leading official on Hong Kong issues, came after other officials played down rumors that Beijing is 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 at the end of this month 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 media they had received phone calls from people with ties to the Chinese government trying to influence their votes.
Zhang Xiaoming, the head of Beijing’s representative office in Hong Kong, said over the weekend that allegations of intervention were only rumors.
Zhang Dejiang, chairman of the National People’s Congress, said it is 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, Maria Tam.
“It is a very important role, so the central government has the right to step in,” Tam told reporters in her summary of Zhang’s comments.
Zhang 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 added that it is unfortunate that “street politics” have become a part of everyday life in Hong Kong while neighboring Chinese city of Shenzhen, is catching up economically.
“It is quite possible that Shenzhen can overtake Hong Kong in two years,” Tam cited Zhang as saying.
Calls to the central government’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office seeking comment went unanswered. China’s Foreign Ministry declined to comment.
The British government said it hopes that following the selection, discussion will resume about progressing to a “more democratic and accountable system of government.”
“This would support Hong Kong’s continued prosperity and help protect the Special Administrative Region’s rights and freedoms,” a British Foreign Office spokeswoman said.
Hong Kong returned to China under a “one country, two systems” formula that allows freedoms not enjoyed on the mainland. China bristles at dissent, however, especially over issues such as demands for universal suffrage.
This month’s election is the first since mass pro-democracy street protests rocked Hong Kong in late 2014.
Beijing’s support means former Hong Kong civil service head Carrie Lam is tipped as the favorite in the contest despite losing popularity polls to an ex-colleague, former Financial Secretary John Tsang.
Beside Tsang, outspoken retired Judge Woo Kwok-hing also made it on the ballot after nominations closed Wednesday.
Tsang had previously rejected speculation that Beijing did not trust him despite his almost decade-long tenure as financial secretary.
But during the meeting Zhang stressed “many times” that the next chief executive needs to be “extraordinary, outstanding” and have Beijing’s trust, said Hong Kong delegate and election committee member Michael Tien.
“The implication is that being a secretary for 10 years doesn’t necessarily mean the person is qualified as a chief executive,” Tien said.
Tien added some committee members expect Beijing to make its final preference known closer to the election.
The central government is legally required to officially appoint the winner of the committee’s election.
Another delegate, Rita Fan, the former head of Hong Kong’s legislature, denied Beijing is intervening in the race, adding it has 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,” Fan said.
But critics say Zhang’s comments just weeks before the polls will further undermine the “one country, two systems” principle, which has come under strain, especially since the shadowy detention of five Hong Kong booksellers in late 2015.
“The central government might as well just tell us directly who to vote for and we all become rubber stamps,” said prodemocracy legislator and election committee member Lam Cheuk-ting.
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