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HONG KONG – Hong Kong's simmering summer of discontent gets even hotter Sunday when Beijing is expected to recommend restricting the first direct elections for the Chinese-controlled financial hub's leader, stepping up chances of a showdown with democracy groups.
The former British colony, which was handed back to China in 1997, has been the scene of escalating tension for the past year after activists threatened a mass sit-in paralyzing the financial district if Beijing rules out genuine democratic reforms.
While both sides agree that residents should be allowed to elect the territory's leader, known as the chief executive, starting in 2017, they're deadlocked over how to choose candidates. The pro-democracy contingent wants the public to be able to nominate people freely, but communist leaders in Beijing refuse, insisting that an elite body of 1,200 members need to vet candidates who above all must be patriotic to China.
China's legislature is expected to address the issue directly for the first time Sunday by issuing guidelines that are expected to hew to that stance. The Standing Committee of the National People's Congress in Beijing will recommend that voters choose from up to three candidates named by a similar body of 1,200 — not the public — after garnering approval from at least half the members, Hong Kong newspapers reported this week.
Democracy activists are threatening to fight back, with the major Occupy Central movement pledging waves of protest that could culminate in a last-ditch rally with least 10,000 demonstrators blocking streets in Central, the financial district and symbolic heart of the city. Student leaders are also considering a walkout of university classes next month if Beijing doesn't agree to its demand to allow the public to nominate candidates.
"There will be no more daydreaming" after Sunday's decision, said Alex Chow, secretary general of the Hong Kong Federation of Students. "The hard fact is that they will not give true democratic reform to Hong Kong."
After China regained control of Hong Kong, it agreed to let it maintain a high degree of control over its own affairs under the principle of "one country, two systems." That's allowed the territory to carry on with its own legal and financial system and civil liberties such as freedom of speech.
But the restrictions on candidates appear to reflect President Xi Jinping's concerns that a genuine election could erode party control over the territory that it exercises through loyal political and business elites. Since taking office 18 months ago, Xi has overseen a notable chilling of the mainland's political atmosphere as he bolsters his personal power and eliminates potential challenges to Communist Party rule.
"Xi seems comfortable about Hong Kong only when the current rule-through-the-elite approach works," said Yu Maochun, an expert on Chinese politics at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland.
Yu said the crisis is only likely to worsen since the deeply conservative Xi lacks the foresight and imagination to find a compromise with the pro-democracy camp.
The battle over electoral reforms has divided the city, with business groups and tycoons warning that Occupy Central's protest threatens to destabilize the city while many young people upset over widening inequality have backed the democracy activists. Desire for genuine democratic reform is also fuelled by the deep unpopularity of current leader Leung Chun-ying, who like all postcolonial leaders was chosen by the body of mostly pro-Beijing elites.
Restrictions on the territory's first direct elections are needed to protect the interests of the billionaire tycoons that control big chunks of Hong Kong's economy, in order to safeguard its position as a capitalist hub, said Wang Zhenmin, a Chinese legal scholar and member of a committee overseeing Hong Kong's mini-constitution.
Hong Kongers should therefore accept incremental progress, he argued in a speech Thursday.
"Less perfect universal suffrage is better than no universal suffrage," Wang said "Leave some room for future growth."
Hong Kong and Beijing officials as well as state media have warned the Occupy Central leaders that their actions would be illegal.
"If these activities pose a shocking threat to Hong Kong or continue unabated, enormously dampening the city's functions, it is imperative that the Hong Kong government adopt coercive measures," the Global Times newspaper, published by the ruling Communist Party, said this week. "The opposition camp in Hong Kong embraces some unrealistic illusions that must be knocked out. A number of extremists must pay for their illegal confrontational behavior."
Chow, the student leader, said there would be no turning back for Hong Kong after Sunday.
"Hong Kong people have to make a judgment: whether they are going to fight or accept the offer from the central government," he said, adding that he believed most residents would reject Beijing's likely decision because "it will only trap Hong Kong in the next 30 years."
AP writer Christopher Bodeen in Beijing contributed to this report.
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