HONG KONG — Hong Kong's leader formally asked Beijing on Tuesday for legal changes that would ultimately let residents of the southern Chinese city elect his successor, but he downplayed calls for the public to nominate candidates free of China's vetting.
The former British colony's Beijing-backed top official, Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, said in his report to China's legislature that consultations with nearly 125,000 people and groups in the city found they were "eager" for universal suffrage. He advised Beijing that changes to Hong Kong's mini-constitution, the Basic Law, were needed for democratic reform, kicking off a process that will let voters pick the city's leaders starting in 2017.
The report, however, made scant mention of calls from pro-democracy groups to allow the public to put forth candidates without Beijing's interference. It said that "mainstream opinion" held that it was best left to an elite nominating committee like the one that has hand-picked all of Hong Kong's postcolonial leaders.
Hong Kong and mainland Chinese authorities say such a committee is the only method allowed under the Basic Law but that has raised fears Beijing will screen out candidates it doesn't like.
"After reading the report, I have come to see what fake universal suffrage could be like," pro-democracy legislator Charles Mok said during a debate in the legislature. Raymond Wong, leader of a radical pro-democracy party, said government officials were following a "script written by the Communist Party."
The report, also posted on a Hong Kong government website, is sure to add to discontent among residents already upset over Beijing's growing influence in the former British colony.
It comes two weeks after an estimated half a million people took to Hong Kong's streets in an annual rally to press for full democracy. Turnout was boosted after Beijing released a "white paper" policy document in June that enraged asserting its complete authority over Hong Kong, which is promised a high degree of control over its own affairs under the principle of "one country, two systems."
Nearly 800,000 people last month took part in an informal poll organized by a pro-democracy group, Occupy Central with Love and Peace, to gauge support for genuine democracy in the city. The group has raised the heat in the debate over electoral reform by vowing to rally at least 10,000 supporters to shut down the Asian financial center's central business district to press for democratic reforms that meet international standards.