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HONG KONG – It's among the most powerful clubs in this city of enormous wealth and influence. Only 1,200 people are allowed in, and they decide who leads Hong Kong every five years.
As thousands of protesters block city streets demanding democratic reforms, the future of Hong Kong's exclusive — some would say purposefully opaque — election committee may prove key to defusing a high-stakes political standoff that has dragged on for nearly a month.
When Hong Kong and Chinese authorities launched the committee in 1997, they billed it as a diverse body where everyone from business leaders to fishermen to social workers would come together to choose Hong Kong's top leader. In August, China's powerful National People's Congress picked the committee as the model for screening candidates in the city's first election for chief executive in 2017. China agreed to hold elections beginning that year, with candidates named by a "broadly representative nominating committee," in the deal that led the U.K. to hand over Hong Kong to China in 1997.
The problem, at least for thousands of student demonstrators, is both the committee's track record and its labyrinthine rules for picking candidates.
In the three elections since its formation, the committee has chosen only chief executives loyal to the central Chinese government. Yet the city's 3.5 million general voters have reliably cast more than half their ballots for pro-democracy legislative candidates critical of Beijing.
Demonstrators and even some committee members complain that business interests and pro-Beijing trade groups hold too much influence on the body.
Hundreds of seats are appointed rather than broadly elected. Though a wide swath of workers are ostensibly represented, in many cases it is their employers who choose committee members. Some Hong Kong tycoons, such as Asia's richest person Li Ka-shing, can cast multiple votes because their businesses touch on different sectors represented by the committee.
"This is a kind of gerrymandering of votes that's off the Richter scale, designed to keep the establishment camp in control," said Michael Davis, a law professor at the University of Hong Kong.
Protesters are demanding that Chief Executive Leung Chun-Ying resign and that Beijing allow open nominations for Hong Kong's leader in 2017. There is little chance that either demand will be met, but with the protest in a sort of stalemate, the composition of the nominating committee has emerged as a possible point of compromise.
During a meeting with reporters Tuesday, Leung said such proposals could be hashed out in a second upcoming consultation on the 2017 vote.
"How we should elect the 1,200 so that the nominating committee will be broadly representative — there's room for discussion there," Leung said. "There's room to make the nominating committee more democratic, and this is one of the things we very much want to talk to not just the students but the community at large about."
Student protest leaders continue to demand completely open nominations, but at least some pro-democracy protesters on the streets are willing to consider reforms to the committee instead.
"At least we need to bring more people into the committee," said Kate Chow, a 33-year-old logistics manager who joined thousands at the main downtown protest site. "If we can choose more of these 1,200 people ourselves, I would be comfortable with that."
About 70 percent of committee members, from appointed representatives of commercial interests to seats guaranteed to the National People's Congress, can be trusted to vote Beijing's way, said Dixon Sing, a political science professor at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. The Congress' August decision requires any candidate for chief executive to receive more than half of the committee's support, raising the threshold from the current 15 percent.
Many of those pro-Beijing ballots come from trade groups representing a negligible fraction of the city's population and economy who were added at the central government's insistence and who appoint rather than elect members, said Ken Tsang, a committee member who elected to represent social workers.
"It's difficult to find a fisherman in Hong Kong anymore, yet there are 60 of them within the 1,200, the same ratio as teachers, social workers and lawyers," Tsang said. "That's totally unreasonable and unfair and unbalanced. How can it happen like this?"
Scholars and protesters have proposed lowering the vote threshold for candidates, creating more groups within the committee that would represent more sectors of the city, and allowing all company employees to vote for committee members, rather than just their top executives.
Anson Chan, a former Hong Kong chief secretary who's become a top pro-democracy advocate, suggested eliminating such "corporate" votes.
Willy Lam, a political analyst at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said room for compromise is shrinking, however, as protesters win more support. An opinion poll released by the university Wednesday showed 37.8 percent of respondents supporting the protesters, up from 31.1 percent in September. The researchers polled 802 Hong Kong residents from Oct. 8 to 15.
"The stakes have become higher so even those moderate pan-democratic legislators who before the movement might have been amenable to this compromise might have become more radicalized," Lam said. "They see the tide seems to be turning in favor of more democracy."
Yet Davis, the law professor, said the city's own laws and the National People's Congress' guidelines leave little room for negotiation. Diving into the nominating committee's arcane rules and broadening its membership may offer the only way out.
"The only movable part is changing the constituency base of the nominating committee," Davis said. "It'd be quite a lot of footwork, but it can be done."
Follow Jack Chang at twitter.com/JackChangAP and Kelvin Chan at twitter.com/chanman