Hong Kong democracy activists blast Britain's pro-Beijing comments as 'shameful'

HONG KONG - Hong Kong democracy activists hit back on Friday at comments from Britain welcoming Beijing's plans for limited voting rights in the southern Chinese city, describing them as "shameful" and "cowardly".

In a statement late on Thursday, Britain's Foreign and Commonwealth Office said: "We welcome the confirmation that China's objective is for the election of Hong Kong's Chief Executive through universal suffrage."

It said there was no perfect model, adding it recognised that the "detailed terms" of the decision would disappoint people pushing for a more open nomination process.

Democracy activists were dismayed by London's response, which they view as a pliant statement meant to appease a major trade partner at the expense of its former subjects. "I have one word for that: shameful," veteran democracy campaigner Martin Lee told AFP. "They won't dare say anything that might possibly offend Beijing," Mr Lee said, adding that Britain had every right to question China's decision.

Pro-democracy lawmaker Claudia Mo was equally scathing.

"I'm very disappointed," she told AFP. "No-one is asking Britain to announce... any punitive measures, just to speak up, speak loud and speak up. They couldn't even do that. It's so cowardly."

"The UK government today is more keen about having a bigger share in the China pie."

Activists in the former British colony had their hopes for genuine democracy dashed after China announced on Sunday that the city's next leader would be vetted by a pro-Beijing committee.

Britain handed Hong Kong back to China in 1997 under an agreement that allows civil liberties not seen on the mainland, including free speech and the right to protest.

London's statement contrasted with comments from the United States earlier this week, which took a more robust stance towards Beijing.

Britain's response comes after the Chinese authorities on Monday demanded London drop an inquiry into the progress of democratic reforms in Hong Kong, accusing it of "highly inappropriate" interference in its affairs, the BBC reported.

Mr Lee, along with Mr Anson Chan, a former number two official for the city, travelled to Britain in July to urge London not to turn a blind eye to "attacks on freedoms that were enshrined in the 1997 handover to China".

They had also travelled to the US in April where Vice-President Joe Biden called for democratic rule in Hong Kong.

The standing committee of China's National People's Congress, or Parliament, said on Sunday that candidates for Hong Kong's leadership election in 2017 must be chosen by a pro-Beijing committee.

Candidates must win the backing of more than half of the committee members, with only two or three ultimately allowed to run for office.

Democracy activists say this will effectively ensure that only pro-Beijing candidates can contest the vote and have vowed a new "era of civil disobedience" to fight for greater democratic freedoms in the semi-autonomous financial hub.