Lawmakers in Hong Kong began a debate on a controversial electoral reform plan on Wednesday which will allow a direct vote for the city's next leader only among Beijing-picked candidates.
Hundreds of people gathered outside government buildings as lawmakers discuss the proposal ahead of a vote which will take place at the end of this week.
The China-backed proposal lays out a direct vote for Hong Kong’s next leader in 2017 for the first time, but requires screening of the candidates by a panel. Pro-democracy activists want a leader chosen by universal suffrage, rather than from a list of pro-Beijing candidates.
Protesters marched to the city’s government headquarters to demonstrate against the proposal last week. Pro-Beijing demonstrators also gathered in the southern Chinese financial hub to show their support for the proposed system, which they argue will provide stability for Hong Kong.
"I cannot think of anyone in Hong Kong who is happy today. I have been a legislator for 11 years, with an aim to fight for universal suffrage. Today I will cast a negative vote for an incomplete and unsatisfactory political reform proposal," democrat Ronny Tong told Reuters.
"The bill needs to go through. We have to support Hong Kong’s stability. We cannot keep carrying on like this," a pro-Beijing protester said.
At least 200 officers have been stationed in the Legislative Council building and another 1,000 have been deployed outside, the South China Morning Post reported. Some roads were closed. Tension has been also running high after Hong Kong police arrested five men and four women for allegedly manufacturing explosives on the eve of the poll on political reform.
The reform package need a two-thirds majority in the 70-seat house, or the votes of 47 members, to pass. Hong Kong’s 27 pro-democracy legislators have pledged to veto it despite repeated warnings from China.
It is not clear what China's response will be if the plan is rejected, but a Chinese foreign ministry official in Hong Kong said that if the proposal is vetoed, "democracy in Hong Kong will come to a standstill."
The Communist Party's official People's Daily defended the proposal by saying it will provide stability.
"Looking around the world, some countries' and regions' universal suffrage systems are not in line with the actual situation on the ground, causing social chaos, economic hardship and difficulties too numerous to mention," a front page commentary in the paper said.
Pro-democracy activists caught the world’s attention last year by occupying part of the city for over 10 weeks, demanding electoral reforms while holding yellow umbrellas which became a symbol of their movement.
Once a British colony, Hong Kong reverted from British to Chinese rule in 1997, under a "one country, two systems," formula that gives it substantial autonomy and freedoms, although China still insists on determining Hong Kong's rulers.
If Hong Kong’s lawmakers reject the plan Hong Kong's next leader will be selected by a pro-Beijing committee as before.