Beijing tells HK pro-democracy lawmakers they’re lucky it’s so lenient

Sitting there safely, sort of.
Sitting there safely, sort of.
Image: Reuters/Tyrone Siu
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This item has been corrected and its headline has been changed.

Last month, before Beijing laid out terms for how Hong Kong residents should elect their leaders starting in 2017, China’s most senior official in Hong Kong held a closed-door meeting with local pro-democracy lawmakers. Asked whether Beijing would allow a democrat to run for the city’s top position, Zhang Xiaoming, head of China’s Liaison Office in Hong Kong, replied bluntly (link in Chinese): ”The fact that you are still sitting there safely shows our leniency.” According to a Reuters report, Zhang’s words were more sinister. “The fact that you are allowed to stay alive, already shows the country’s inclusiveness,” he said, according to two sources who attended the meeting. (Zhang has since said that his comments were misrepresented.)

The comment should erase any lingering hopes that Beijing might still soften its stance toward Hong Kong, a partially autonomous city where activists and lawmakers have been calling for full universal suffrage. Beijing’s proposal last month falls well short of that: Candidates for the city’s top post will need the approval of at least half of a nominating committee that will likely stacked with pro-Beijing members.

Democratic lawmakers in Hong Kong that have vowed to shoot down the proposal, which needs the approval of the local legislature, have been hoping that Beijing might negotiate—especially as students and activists threaten to paralyze the city and stage a mass boycott of classes. That hope is quickly fading. Today, lawmakers from Hong Kong’s Democratic Party said they were done engaging in “deceptive” negotiations with Beijing.

Beijing’s unwillingness to compromise with the more moderate lawmakers, who also prize stability, may be a sign that Hong Kong is losing any leverage it once had over China, as a center for international trade and finance and a base for doing business in the mainland. Hong Kong’s economy, once 12% the size of China’s in the 1980s, is now only 3% of the mainland’s.

Correction (Sep. 14, 2014, 3:00 am EST): After receiving a statement from Reuters that the news wire stands by its version of Zhang’s comments, this story has been amended to include both versions of Zhang’s remarks. According to Sing Tao Daily, Zhang said in Chinese, “仍安然坐在这儿,反映我们的宽大.” According to Reuters, Zhang said, “你们还可以活下去,已经是国家的包容.”