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Hong Kong poll backlash

Hong Kong, Aug. 31: China has laid down strict limits to voting reforms in Hong Kong, prompting pro-democracy activists to vow to bring the financial hub to a standstill.

Pushing back against months of rallies calling for free, democratic elections in Hong Kong, the National People’s Congress (NPC) Standing Committee set out procedural barriers for candidates for the city’s leader or chief executive that would ensure Beijing remained the gatekeeper.

The NPC — China’s final arbiter on the city’s democratic affairs — endorsed a framework to let only two or three candidates run in the 2017 leadership vote. All candidates must first obtain majority backing from a nominating committee likely to be stacked with Beijing loyalists. The relatively tough decision makes it almost impossible for opposition democrats to get on the ballot.

The move closes one of the few avenues left for gradual political liberalisation in China after a sustained campaign against dissent on the mainland this year under President Xi Jinping.

In pressing its offensive in Hong Kong, Beijing has chosen a showdown with a protest movement unlike any it has ever faced on the mainland. Hong Kong’s opposition forces enjoy civil liberties denied in the rest of China and, capitalising on those freedoms, have taken a more confrontational approach than seen before in Hong Kong.

Hundreds of “Occupy Central” activists, who demand Beijing allow free elections, staged a protest to launch a campaign of civil disobedience.

The Hong Kong civil disobedience will climax with a blockade at some time of the city’s important Central business district.

“Today is not only the darkest day in the history of Hong Kong’s democratic development, today is also the darkest day of one country, two systems,” said Benny Tai, a law professor and one of Occupy Central’s main leaders, referring to the formula under which capitalist Hong Kong, with a population of around 7.2 million, was returned to communist Chinese rule in 1997.

The Occupy movement said in a statement that “all chances of dialogue have been exhausted and the occupation of Central will definitely happen”. It gave no time frame for its action.

“After having lied to Hong Kong people for so many years, it finally revealed itself today,” said Alan Leong, a pro-democracy legislator. “Hong Kong people are right to feel betrayed.”

Benny Tai told the crowd: “Our hope is that people gathered here will be dauntless civil resisters. What is our hope? Our hope is that today Hong Kong has entered a new era, an era of civil disobedience, an era of resistance.”

Other groups were also preparing to protest. The Hong Kong Federation of Students urged university students to boycott classes.

The tight reins on Hong Kong politics reflect a fear among leaders in Beijing that political concessions here would ignite demands for liberalisation on the mainland, a quarter-century after such hopes were extinguished on Tiananmen Square in 1989.

Under current law, the chief executive is chosen by an Election Committee, whose approximately 1,200 members are selected by constituencies generally loyal to Beijing and the city’s business elite.

According to the Chinese legislature’s proposal, the leader would be chosen by popular vote starting in 2017, as promised, but candidates would first have to win an endorsement from at least half the members of a nominating committee. The composition of the nominating panel would be based on that of the current Election Committee.