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HONG KONG – Hong Kong election reform proposals that sparked massive street protests last year in the southern Chinese financial center are being presented Wednesday to the legislature, where it faces likely defeat from pro-democracy lawmakers.
The proposals tabled for a legislature debate would allow the former British colony's top leader to be chosen by voters through direct elections rather than by a 1,200-member panel of mostly Beijing-friendly elites.
But under guidelines laid down by China's central government, voters would only be able to choose from a set of candidates screened by the panel.
Pro-democracy leaders have blasted the plan as "sham democracy," saying the central government is breaking its promise to eventually grant genuine universal suffrage to the city, a special administrative region of China.
Hong Kong's government needs the support of at least two-thirds of the 70 lawmakers, or 47 seats, to win approval when it goes to a vote, which is expected by the end of the week. But lawmakers from pro-democracy parties, who hold 27 seats, have vowed to use their power to veto it. They entered the legislature chamber with mock ballot boxes each marked with an X, signaling their intention to vote against the plan.
Outside the legislature, pro-establishment demonstrators played Chinese communist anthems while pro-democracy activists chanted "definitely no to fake democracy."
"I know that this government proposal is a lie," said pro-democracy protester Brandy Yau. "There's no chance that we'll be able to vote for who we really want for our chief executive, so that's why we have to oppose this voting proposal."
The looming defeat would mark the close of the most tumultuous year in Hong Kong since Beijing took control in 1997 after a century and half of colonial rule. Tens of thousands of people took to the streets last year to protest the central government's election screening requirement in demonstrations that made world headlines.
For 11 weeks, activists camped out on major thoroughfares in three neighborhoods to demand greater electoral freedom but eventually left the streets after exhaustion set in and Hong Kong's unpopular leader, Leung Chun-ying, refused to offer any concessions.
Authorities are bracing for the possibility of violent protests as the vote nears, though that prospect may be overstated given the likelihood of a defeat for the government. Legislature officials have raised the alert level and authorized police to deploy inside the building.
A police risk assessment indicated "a likelihood of the Legislative Council complex being stormed by radical groups in the next couple of days," legislature president Jasper Tsang said Tuesday.
Beijing has stepped up last-ditch efforts to win Hong Kongers over as public support for the package has dwindled. In a rolling survey by a coalition of universities, the gap between those in favor of the government's plan and those against has narrowed. Results since the start of June show opinion more or less evenly split although the latest results, from June 8-12, show a slight uptick in support among 1,100 people surveyed. No margin of error was given.
In a front page editorial, the Communist Party's flagship People's Daily newspaper insisted the reform package on offer was the best option for maintaining Hong Kong's stability, prosperity and rising living standards. Such editorials are generally vetted at the highest levels of the party.
"Universal suffrage must be considered within the framework of 'one country, two systems' and Hong Kong's Basic Law, in accordance with Hong Kong's current conditions," the paper said.
"Around the globe, there are examples of countries implementing forms of universal suffrage unsuited to their conditions, leading to social chaos, economic crisis and falling living standards."
Song Ruan, a senior Beijing representative in Hong Kong, warned Tuesday that if the package is defeated, "no one will know when the constitutional reform process will be relaunched."
"The political wrangling in Hong Kong will continue, society will be even more polarized and internal strife will persist. The prospects of Hong Kong will be very worrying," said Song, deputy commissioner of the Hong Kong office of China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in a briefing with foreign press.
Annie Ho in Hong Kong and Chris Bodeen in Beijing contributed to this report.