HONG KONG - Just days before China was set to deliver its edict on electoral reform in Hong Kong, Beijing's most senior official in the city held a rare meeting with several local lawmakers whose determined push for full democracy had incensed Beijing's Communist leaders.
The setting at the Aug. 19 meeting was calm: A room with plush cream carpets, Chinese ink brush landscape paintings and a vase of purple orchids.
The political mood outside, however, was fraught. Democratic protesters were threatening to shut down the global financial hub with an "Occupy Central" sit-in if Beijing refused to allow the city to freely elect its next leader.
After the formal smiles and handshakes with Zhang Xiaoming, the head of China's Liaison Office in Hong Kong, the mood soured. Pro-democracy lawmaker Leung Yiu-chung asked Zhang whether Beijing would allow any democrat to run for the city's highest office.
Zhang, 51, dressed in a black suit and a navy blue striped tie, delivered a blunt response. "The fact that you are allowed to stay alive, already shows the country's inclusiveness," he answered, according to two people in the room who declined to be named. Zhang's office did not respond to several faxed requests for comment.
VISIONS OF CHAOS
Zhang's remarks stripped away any pretence China could find common ground with Hong Kong's democracy camp. The two sides have been wrangling over what it means to have "one country, two systems" for the past 30 years - China stressing "one country" and democrats in the former British colony the "two systems".
For Beijing, Western-style democracy conjures up visions of "colour revolutions" and the "Arab Spring", of chaos and instability that could pose a mortal threat to the ruling Communist Party. For many Hong Kong residents, free elections means preserving the British-instituted rule of law, accountability of leaders, and multi-party politics as a check on government powers.
At the Aug. 19 meeting, Zhang said Beijing had been generous even allowing democrats such as Leung to run for legislative seats. He insisted that the next leader had to be a "patriot".
"We were shocked," said one person who attended the meeting. "But Zhang Xiaoming is only an agent who delivered the stance of the central government without trying to polish it."
Few were surprised, though, when China's highest lawmaking body, the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress (NPCSC), announced an electoral package on Aug. 31 that said any candidate for Hong Kong's chief executive in the 2017 election had to first get majority support from a 1,200-person nominating panel - likely to be stacked with pro-Beijing loyalists.
Democrats say the decision spelled out China's bottom line on political reform: A direct vote will be allowed, but only if Beijing vets the candidates.
Yet the pro-democracy movement is vowing to press on with its campaign of civil disobedience. It is threatening to lock down Hong Kong's main business district with sit-ins in October, protesting what they call "fake" Chinese-style democracy. Students plan to boycott university classes later this month.
And the city's 27 pro-democracy lawmakers have threatened to block Beijing's 2017 electoral package in the legislature, where they hold nearly one-third of the seats - enough to veto the law and block future government policies.
Benny Tai, one of the movement's three leaders, takes a longer-term view. "I call this a process of democratic baptism ... by participating, people will be baptized by democratic ideals," Tai told Reuters. "So it is not the end of the movement, it's the beginning of the movement, the beginning of a disobedience age."