Hong Kong Chief Executive Donald Tsang (
Tsang said that democracy, if taken to the extreme, could spark scenes reminiscent of the disastrous decade-long violent purge of capitalist influence, which tore the country apart.
Tsang is in charge of the process to eventually introduce universal suffrage into the former British colony.
The backlash over the comments, made during an interview to promote his annual policy address, which skirted around the issue of democratic reform, forced the 63-year-old into the apology.
"I am very sorry that I made an inappropriate remark concerning the Cultural Revolution during a radio interview and I wish to retract that remark," he said in a statement issued on Saturday, in what is believed to be his first public apology since taking office.
"Hong Kong people treasure democracy and hope to implement universal suffrage as soon as possible. I share the same aspirations," he said.
Tsang's initial comments were made during a radio interview on local broadcaster RTHK.
"If you go to the extreme [of democracy] you have the Cultural Revolution, for instance, in China. Then people take everything into their hands, then you cannot govern the place," he said.
Challenged by the interviewer on whether the purge under communist leadership was in fact an example of democracy, Tsang said: "It was people taking power into their own hands. This is what we mean by democracy."
Universal suffrage was promised to Hong Kong when it was handed back to China from colonial power Britain in 1997, but no specific timetable was established for its introduction.
Tsang won the "election" for the post of chief executive earlier this year against a pro-democracy candidate, but the vote was limited to a body of around 800 business and industrial elites, most of whom are pro-Beijing.
A consultation exercise on when to introduce elections for both the chief executive and the legislature was completed this week and Tsang said he would make recommendations to Beijing once he had studied the findings.
Debate is raging in the city over when full elections should take place. Pro-democrats are calling for democratic elections in 2012, but it is believed Beijing hopes to postpone democratic reforms in Hong Kong until 2017 or later.
The Cultural Revolution began in 1966, when Communist chief Mao Zedong (
Students and workers, who became his "Red Guards," were empowered to hound millions across the country for perceived ideological impurity, leading to many Chinese fleeing, often to Hong Kong.