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Chinese PM's Comments on Hong Kong's Democracy Stir Controversy

Comments by Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao that Hong Kong should move gradually toward democracy have sparked criticism from political parties in the territory. A number of groups say Hong Kong's political system needs immediate reform to better reflect the people.

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao said Wednesday that Beijing wishes to see the improvement of Hong Kong peoples' lives through the gradual introduction of democracy.

The comments drew a negative reaction from Hong Kong's pro-democratic camp, which claims the Beijing-backed local administration is behind schedule on promises to discuss democratic reform.

Joseph Cheng, is the convener of the Power for Democracy, a coalition of political and civic groups calling for the selection of a new Hong Kong leader through direct elections.

"Chinese leaders have always been telling Hong Kong people that yes, we are thinking of democratization but it has to move along gradually, you cannot expect a very sudden jump…," he said. "I see no sudden breakthrough or anything remarkable in Wen Jiabao's remark."

Mr. Cheng says Beijing wants Hong Kong to become a more stable and prosperous city, but Chinese leaders feel this can only be attained through a show of solidarity with the local administration.

Public dissatisfaction with Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa, his administration, and its policies climaxed in July when half a million residents took to the streets. They were particularly angry about a proposed anti-subversion bill, seen as an affront to basic freedoms, and called for Mr. Tung's resignation.

The leader avoided a deepening of the political crisis by withdrawing the contentious bill. Two of his most unpopular ministers also stepped down. But a question remains of how the next leader will be chosen about 3.5 years from now.

Hong Kong's often vaguely worded constitution allows for the introduction of a democratic reform by 2007. Pro-democracy parties say changes need to be instituted now for direct and universal elections to take place in 2007 when Mr. Tung's term expires.