China and Hong Kong poised for showdown over democracy

A Chinese national flag is seen in front of the chimney of a heat supply plant in Beijing July 16, 2014. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

By James Pomfret HONG KONG (Reuters) - Hong Kong is poised for a showdown with China when the Chinese parliament meets later on Sunday, with the largely rubber-stamp body likely to snuff out hopes for a democratic breakthrough in the regional financial hub at elections due in 2017. Political reform has been a constant source of friction between Hong Kong's pro-democracy movement and the mainland since the former British colony was handed back to Communist Party rulers in 1997. On the surface, the National People's Congress will likely make a landmark ruling by endorsing the framework for the first direct vote by a Chinese city to choose its leader. Beijing is already hailing it as a milestone in democratic reform. However, Beijing will tightly curb nominations for the 2017 leadership poll to filter out any candidates it deems unacceptable, said a person with knowledge of the electoral framework. Only two or three "patriotic" candidates will be allowed on the ballot and open nominations will be ruled out. Instead, candidates must be backed by at least 50 percent of a 1,200-person "nominating committee". That committee is meant to be "broadly representative" of Hong Kong interests, but will be similar in composition to an existing election committee stacked with pro-Beijing loyalists. It's a formula that will rile Hong Kong's pro-democracy activists, who plan to blockade the city's Central business district in the coming weeks. On Saturday, Hong Kong's public broadcaster RTHK said 5,000 police will be deployed for the "Occupy Central" protest, heightening the sense of unease. The city's 28,000-strong police force is already on high alert. An initial protest planned for Sunday evening will be the start of what activists and lawmakers have described as a "full-scale, wave after wave" civil disobedience campaign. Hong Kong's democracy advocates remain deeply distrustful of Beijing despite assurances from the mainland. "Even if we accept a fake democracy model, there's no assurance at all, that for the next vote, there'll be real democracy," said Lee Cheuk-yan, a pro-democracy lawmaker. Wang Zhenmin, a prominent legal scholar and Chinese government adviser who was flown to Hong Kong by the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs to talk about the 2017 election, said it is time for "practical and realistic steps". "Less perfect universal suffrage is better than no universal suffrage. Leave some room for future growth," he said. WON'T BACK DOWN The proposed electoral framework will still have to be endorsed by two-thirds of Hong Kong's 70-seat legislature. With pro-democracy lawmakers holding more than a third of the seats, the proposal will likely be shelved. "We will not accept such a model of fake democracy, and we will vote it down," Lee said. Senior Chinese officials have repeatedly warned activists against their "illegal" protests and say they won't back down. Some key members of the pro-democracy movement, including media magnate Jimmy Lai, have also come under pressure in the run-up to the Chinese parliamentary decision. On Friday, China also repeated its warning against foreign interference, saying it will not tolerate the use of Hong Kong "as a bridgehead to subvert and infiltrate the mainland". The Occupy Central movement has not yet won broad support among Hong Kong's middle class, who are concerned about antagonizing China and disruptions to business, but strong measures by China or the Hong Kong police could change that. "If police use tear gas or water cannon ... this (use of) disproportionate force on protesters will generate more support for our civil disobedience campaign," said Benny Tai, a law professor and one of Occupy Central's main leaders. Tai and several other Occupy Central organizers, fearful of arrest, declined to be specific about the timing of their plans but said they also won't back down. Other action could include a boycott of university classes, wildcat street protests, strikes and a mass refusal to pay taxes. Major companies and banks in Central, including HSBC, have held drills and have contingency plans for a possible shutdown in coming weeks or months. Ratings agencies and banks have also noted the possibility of China tensions affecting the city's longer term economic outlook. Also on Sunday, Fernando Chui is widely expected to be "re-elected" as chief executive of nearby Macau, the tiny but wealthy former Portuguese-run enclave, after the pro-China government stifled an unofficial referendum on democracy. Chui is the only candidate in the election by a select panel of 400 largely pro-China loyalists. Macau, a casino hub, was returned to China in 1999. (Editing by Paul Tait and Ian Geoghegan)