Thousands protested in Hong Kong on Sunday against a Chinese plan for electoral reform that would prevent critics of Beijing from running for chief executive in the former British colony.
China revealed a framework for universal suffrage – one person, one vote – for the 2017 election of chief executive, the top political job in the Chinese territory, but set tough conditions that would ensure Beijing could vet candidates.
“Hong Kong people will have one person, one vote, but Beijing will select all the candidates – puppets. What is the difference between a rotten apple, a rotten orange and a rotten banana,” said Martin Lee, founder of the Democratic party. “We want genuine universal suffrage and not democracy with Chinese characteristics.”
Occupy Central, a pro-democracy group backed by media tycoon Jimmy Lai, said it would proceed with a civil disobedience campaign that would involve blocking a key business district.
Some Chinese commentators have said China might deploy soldiers on the Hong Kong streets if police are unable to control the protests.
“Fight for democracy; never give up . . . Civil disobedience; never bow our heads,” Chan Kin-man, one of the founders of Occupy Central, chanted to the protesters.
After months of heated debate and rallies over Hong Kong’s political future, China on Sunday said potential candidates for chief executive must receive majority backing from a nomination committee that would consist of 1,200 mostly pro-Beijing members. It would also allow no more than two or three candidates on the ballot.
“This is a very dark day for Hong Kong,” said Anson Chan, the former head of the Hong Kong civil service. “The rest of the world should condemn this decision for what it is . . . it is a colossal big step backwards.”
The US state department said Washington believed “the legitimacy of the chief executive will be greatly enhanced if the promise of universal suffrage is fulfilled and if the election provides the people of Hong Kong a genuine choice of candidates representative of the voters’ will”. London said it was studying the ruling.
The ruling will trigger an intense debate in Hong Kong’s Legislative Council (Legco), where a two-thirds majority is needed to approve the plan. CY Leung, the pro-Beijing chief executive, will face an uphill battle persuading Democrats to back the proposal.
Under the existing system, a candidate for chief executive needs support from one-eighth of the committee – which has twice allowed Democrats to run. By requiring a majority backing,
China has ensured that no Democrat can get on the ballot. Mrs Chan said there was “no chance” any Democrat would support the framework.
Li Fei, deputy secretary-general of China’s National People’s Congress Standing Committee, said it would be a “big step backwards” if Legco did not back the plan. If it does not pass, the 2017 election will be run under the current system where the chief executive is elected by a 1,200-strong, mostly pro-Beijing, committee.
The debate over democracy has polarised Hong Kong. While people have more political rights than they had under British rule, critics of China are worried that the Communist party is weakening the territory’s freedoms.
Under the deal agreed by Margaret Thatcher and Deng Xiaoping, Hong Kong is governed under a “one country, two systems” principle that guarantees autonomy – except over foreign and defence policy – for 50 years after the 1997 handover.
But pro-democracy activists and many locals are increasingly concerned about the growing influence of China on Hong Kong.
In June, China published a “white paper” on Hong Kong which sparked concern by suggesting that Hong Kong judges needed to be “patriotic”, raisingquestions about judicial independence.