An argument over who is eligible to participate in Hong Kong's constitutional reform has deepened as Chinese officials lambaste pro-democracy lawmakers from the city for meeting with U.S. leaders.
Beijing on Thursday stepped up its criticism of four prominent pro-democracy lawmakers visiting Washington at the invitation of the U.S. Congress.
The lawmakers are to testify before a Senate sub-committee about a deadlock over changes to the former British colony's system of government. Opinion polls show that most Hong Kong residents want more democracy. Democratically elected legislators have accused leaders here of stalling reforms to elect all the city's legislators and its head of government.
Chinese Vice Minister of Commerce An Min says Hong Kong's pro-democracy lawmakers are guilty of begging foreign countries for favors. Mr. An dismisses the four lawmakers as "a bunch of clowns." He adds that the lawmakers and some of their foreign supporters do not understand that Hong Kong is part of China, and that its constitutional reform is an internal affair.
Hong Kong reverted to Chinese sovereignty in 1997 after a century and a half of British colonial rule. A policy known as "one country, two systems" has allowed Hong Kong to maintain its economic system as well as the city's British-style judiciary and civil liberties not enjoyed in mainland China.
However, in the past year, there has been growing public anger at both the quality of the local government and China's handling of Hong Kong.
Martin Lee, a senior member of Hong Kong's largest pro-democracy party, is one of the lawmakers visiting Washington. "China is perceived to be interfering far too much, even to the extent of stopping the Hong Kong government from giving us a time table as to when we will be consulted as to have [having] democratic elections," says Mr. Lee.
Hong Kong's constitution opens the door for directly electing its leader in 2007, but the government has made little progress in making the changes.
China has said that only Hong Kong people who are patriots are qualified to serve in public office. Beijing officials have repeatedly said pro-democracy politicians lack patriotism.
The government of Hong Kong, which is known as a Special Administrative Region (SAR), has come out in full support of Beijing.
Stephen Lam is the city's secretary for constitutional affairs. "What we are talking about today is how we take forward Hong Kong's constitutional development," he says. "That is clearly a matter for the central authorities and the SAR to deal with."
Mr. Lam also condemned Martin Lee's visit to Washington.