Beijing has left the door open on the possibility of a pan-democrat being allowed to run for chief executive in 2017.
But there is no possibility of public nomination of candidates, Hong Kong's lawmakers were told during a meeting with senior mainland officials in Shanghai yesterday.
Li Fei, chairman of the Basic Law Committee, said the nominating committee must be the only body with the right to select chief executive hopefuls. He said this would minimise the risk of political confrontation and a constitutional crisis. It would also stop candidates taking Hong Kong down the road of populism.
He said proposals for public or party nominations by pan-democrats were against the Basic Law and would weaken the role of the committee.
The comments were made at a meeting between 52 lawmakers and three senior officials - Li, Wang Guangya, director of the State Council's Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, and Zhang Xiaoming, director of the central government's liaison office.
But the three Beijing officials did not comment directly on the idea of public recommendation of candidates to the nominating committee - a move pan-democrats said could pave the way for further talks. Last week, Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor cautiously welcomed a proposal by academics, under which a hopefuls who collected about 70,000 signatures would have their name put forward to the nominating committee for consideration.
The Basic Law stipulates that a "broadly representative" nominating committee will pick candidates. Pan-democrats fear this will make it impossible for a critic of Beijing to run.
While Beijing officials have repeatedly reiterated the chief executive must "love the country and Hong Kong", Zhang clarified for the first time that this requirement was never meant to target pan-democrats.
"We have never said that all those belonging to the so-called 'pan-democrat' camp fail to meet the criteria of 'love the country, love Hong Kong'," Zhang said. He also extended an invitation to those lawmakers who did not join the Shanghai trip and vowed to talk to them in the next two months.
The 10 pan-democratic lawmakers, who spent about two hours exclusively with the officials without the presence of Beijing loyalists, said the meeting had not narrowed the gap between them and the Beijing officials, especially on public nomination and on whether it was practical to require the chief executive to be a patriot.
But they agreed that the talks had been genuine and had improved their relationship.
"The communication has taken a great step forward," said Democrat Sin Chung-kai.