Dialogue between Beijing's top representative in Hong Kong and pan-democratic lawmakers yesterday was "far more frank than expected" but both sides remain poles apart on the city's political reform.
A source familiar with the matter said this yesterday after Zhang Xiaoming, director of the central government's liaison office in Hong Kong, met representatives of the Civic Party and the Labour Party.
The source said Zhang noted the fact that the Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China - whose platform includes "end one-party dictatorship"- was allowed to operate in Hong Kong showed Beijing's tolerance.
He also pointed out that lawmakers returned under the city's electoral systems came from a "wide political spectrum".
But he told Labour Party lawmakers that the chief executive to be chosen by universal suffrage in 2017 must be a "staunch patriot" and anyone openly calling for an end to "one-party dictatorship" could not run for the job.
Democrats have insisted there must be no screening mechanism to eliminate candidates Beijing does not like.
Civic Party leader Alan Leong Kah-kit said the frankness they experienced at the meeting far exceeded their expectations. "I hope that frankness will provide a very good basis for taking the dialogue further," he said.
But the source said Zhang rebutted Leong's views in an article published in Apple Daily yesterday that the nomination rules must ensure that voters had a "free choice of candidates".
"Zhang retorted that if it is put into practice, there won't be any system for nominating candidates for election but only the mechanism for people signing up for elections," the source said.
Zhang had also said the "fundamental flaw" of the Civic Party's approach was that it was not acting in accordance with the Basic Law. Its support for public nomination - allowing voters to nominate candidates - was not in line with the mini-constitution, the liaison office chief said, according to the source.
Labour Party chairman Lee Cheuk-yan said he was worried that there could be little room for dialogue in future if the national legislature imposed a strict framework on political reform.
The divide in views was further underlined yesterday when Cheung Kong Group chairman Li Ka-shing said he did not want to see a standstill in the city's democratisation. "I don't want to march on the spot," he said.
The National People's Congress Standing Committee will convene between August 25 and 31 in Beijing to decide on arrangements for the 2017 chief executive election.
The committee is expected to set out guidelines for reform. Pan-democrats fear it will demand that prospective candidates need backing from half of the nominating committee to officially enter the race.
Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying dropped a strong hint yesterday that he did not oppose such a requirement.
"There is a legal opinion that because the Basic Law stated that the candidates shall be put forward by the nominating committee, the word 'committee' means that [the nomination] will be a collective decision," he said.
A government source confirmed last night that Basic Law Committee chairman Li Fei will host a seminar in Hong Kong on September 1 to explain the Standing Committee's ruling.