China's government criticizes pro-democracy lawmakers in Hong Kong

China's government on Thursday criticized pro-democracy lawmakers in Hong Kong for their vote to reject a political reform plan because it lacked a timetable for when the territory can become fully democratic. Beijing's representatives said the vote Wednesday went against public opinion, although tens of thousands of Hong Kongers have marched through the former British colony to demand faster democratic reform.

Beijing's criticism raised fears that its communist leaders will harden their stance on democratic development in the territory, which returned to Chinese rule in 1997.

The Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office of China's State Council said the vote was "not in line with the mainstream" of public opinion in Hong Kong and that the central government was "unwilling" to see the result.

The government reform proposal had represented "the principle of developing Hong Kong democracy in proper order," the office said, according to the state-run Xinhua News Agency.

Despite lawmakers' calls for Hong Kong to directly elect its leader and legislature, the central government said the territory's political system would remain unchanged at least through 2007, Xinhua reported.

Some analysts and newspapers expressed concerns that Beijing will harden its stance because of its mistrust of opposition lawmakers in Hong Kong.

"Beijing is most unlikely to soften its stance and grant more concessions as a result of the vote. Indeed, there is every chance that the central government's position will harden," the South China Morning Post wrote in an editorial.

Earlier Thursday, Hong Kong Chief Executive Donald Tsang said he had no plans to propose new reforms until after a new leader is chosen in 2007, and called on lawmakers to improve their relations with Beijing. "In order to reach universal suffrage, we have to build trust," Tsang said.

Hong Kong's No. 2 official Rafael Hui attacked opposition figure Martin Lee and Catholic Church leader Bishop Joseph Zen for urging lawmakers to reject the reforms and said they should bear the consequence.

Major newspapers blamed the government for proposing only cosmetic democratic reforms and the opposition for blocking any limited progress.

The Post said the government could have proposed more significant changes within the restrictions set by Beijing. "Instead, it put forward proposals which would make only minimal progress. Officials were naive to think that this package would be readily welcomed by the democrats," the paper wrote.

The Hong Kong Economic Journal said in an editorial that "a political reform package that makes a minor step on the road to democracy" is better than nothing but that it was vetoed by "the pro-democracy camp that claims they fight for democracy."

Since returning to China, Hong Kong has been run under a "one country, two systems" formula that gives the city considerable autonomy and allows its citizens to enjoy civil liberties denied on the mainland.

But Beijing has balked at allowing full democracy, though it has said universal suffrage is a long-term goal. The government's proposed changes called for expanding the legislature by 10 seats and doubling the size of an 800-member committee of elites who pick Hong Kong's leader.

The opposition camp, which holds 25 seats in the legislature, managed to veto the proposal. It required support from two-thirds, or 40, of the 60 lawmakers, but drew only 34 votes, reports the AP. I.L.

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