Hong Kong's first Chief Executive Tung Chee Hwa will be leading a delegation of tycoons to Beijing where they might meet President Xi Jinping to discuss Hong Kong's volatile political situation.
Confirming the trip yesterday in a rare public appearance, Mr Tung said he is stepping back into the limelight because "now is a very critical time for Hong Kong".
Occupy Central organisers are ramping up preparations for a "peaceful" sit-in and the city's pan-democrat legislators have vowed to scuttle any reform proposal for universal suffrage, based on stringent rules announced by Beijing on Sunday.
The United States on Tuesday threw its weight behind the pro- democracy activists, in comments likely to infuriate China.
"The United States supports universal suffrage in Hong Kong in accordance with the Basic Law and the aspirations of the Hong Kong people," said State Department spokesman Jen Psaki.
"We believe that an open society with the highest possible degree of autonomy and governed by rule of law is essential for Hong Kong's stability and prosperity."
Since resigning as the city's leader in 2005, Mr Tung, 77, has found a second wind as a trusted unofficial ambassador-at-large for Beijing but has remained low-profile on the city's domestic affairs. It was the first time that he was holding a press conference since leaving the government.
He did not say yesterday when the Beijing trip will take place or whether it will include powerful tycoons such as Mr Li Ka Shing.
His focus was on urging Hong Kongers "of all political stripes" to set aside their differences, holding out the possibility that "2017 is not the end but the first step of universal suffrage".
Without uniting, he said, there is "no end to the bitter squabbles and paralysis" in Hong Kong.
One point of contention is over the size and formation of the nominating committee which will pre- screen candidates. Beijing stipulated that it will be based on an existing election panel. Critics say it is dominated by Beijing loyalists and vested industry interests.
Noting that many in the committee have businesses in the Chinese mainland, one reporter asked Mr Tung if the panel would be fair in representing the interests of the entire Hong Kong society.
Mr Tung said in reply that democratic development is a long process, pointing out that the first people with the vote in the US were landowners, and it took nearly two centuries before black Americans were given the same privilege.
He also argued that the committee is broadly representative of the city's diverse interests - and will in fact guard against "veering to the other side" with the granting of one-person, one-vote.
"So it must be balanced, and take into account the country's stability. And this is the best way to do it," he said.
The interests of Hong Kong's tycoons could be at stake in any democratisation of the city, which could lead to greater pressure for redistribution of wealth.
Analysts noted that the status quo has served them well, with entrenched monopolies. Inequality in the city is meanwhile one of the highest in the world.
Senior Beijing official Li Fei, the deputy secretary-general of the National People's Congress Standing Committee, said on Monday one reason for the committee is to guard against populism.
It echoed a point made last week by visiting Tsinghua University law dean Wang Zhenmin, who said China needed to protect the interests of the tycoons.
"Universal suffrage means the redistribution of economic interests among society," he said. "The business community's slice of pie will be shared by others. Their interests must be taken into consideration." The small elite group, he added, "controls the destiny of Hong Kong".
Mr Tung further urged Hong Kongers to understand the issue from the country's perspective, including on national security.
He said the actions of "some groups" that had agitated to overthrow the Chinese government during the British colonial era remain a sore point with Beijing.
"So Hong Kong needs to make some effort to reassure the central government."
This article was first published on September 04, 2014.
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