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Hong Kong democracy stalemate sets stage for possible financial district shutdown

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[August 21, 2014]  By James Pomfret
 SHENZHEN China (Reuters) - Chinese officials and Hong Kong democrats failed on Thursday to resolve a standoff over political reforms in the freewheeling former British colony, a deadlock that could end up shutting down the city's financial district next month.

Hong Kong, which returned to Chinese rule in 1997, has been roiled over the past year over how its next leader is chosen in 2017 - by universal suffrage, as the democrats would like, or from a list of pro-Beijing candidates.

A so-called Occupy Central campaign of civil disobedience has threatened to blockade Hong Kong's Central business district if Beijing doesn't allow open nominations, rather than pre-screening candidates and restricting the poll to pro-Beijing "patriots" and those who "love China".

Thursday's meeting just over the Hong Kong border in Shenzhen was seen as a last chance to narrow differences ahead of a parliamentary meeting in Beijing next week that will formally lay out Beijing's position on the 2017 poll.

While both sides said the dialogue was sincere and encouraging, there was little sign of compromise.

Li Fei, the chairman of China's Basic Law Committee who met the Hong Kong lawmakers, reiterated the Basic Law, or Hong Kong's mini-constitution, made no allowance for open nominations.

"We will also not allow public nomination of chief executive candidates, occupying central and other related crimes. This remains one of the biggest arguments in Hong Kong today," he told reporters in a luxury hotel where the talks were held.

Hong Kong returned to China's rule under a principle of "one country, two systems" allowing it broad autonomy and far more freedom of speech, assembly and religion than exists on the mainland. But China has made it plain that Beijing's sovereignty cannot be questioned.

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Helena Wong, a democratic party lawmaker, said Beijing must allow "true full democracy, not fake democracy". The democrats also handed out copies of a report reflecting public demands for a fair election including opposition candidates, after an unofficial referendum last month that drew more than 800,000 votes.

Some 26 pro-democracy lawmakers recently pledged in a declaration to veto any "unfair" reform plan that does not meet international standards. Any electoral reform proposal must garner the support of at least two-thirds of the city's 70-member legislature in order to pass, as well as being ultimately approved by Beijing.

"Time is already running short and the opportunity for discussion is precious and hard to come by. This is the last chance for open communication," Rita Fan, a Hong Kong delegate to China's parliament, said after meeting the Chinese officials.

Chinese officials and Hong Kong businesses have warned any shutdown of the city's financial district could damage Hong Kong's economy and reputation.

(Additional reporting by Diana Chan; Editing by Nick Macfie)

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