HONG KONG — Hong Kong's government unveiled election reform proposals Wednesday, setting the stage for another round of confrontation with pro-democracy activists and lawmakers opposed to Beijing-mandated restrictions on candidates for the city's top job.
The long-expected reform package made some tweaks but gave little ground to pro-democracy leaders, whose rejection of the government's initial proposal last year sparked protests that saw key streets in the city occupied for nearly three months and violent clashes with riot police. Nearly 1,000 people were arrested during what was called the Occupy Central protest movement that marked the city's most tumultuous period since China took control of the territory from Britain in 1997.
The reform package, which needs the city's legislature's approval before it breaks for summer in July, could fail to obtain the necessary two-thirds majority, or 47 out of 70 seats, to pass. With pro-democracy lawmakers controlling 27 seats, the government is hoping it can persuade four members to switch sides.
Outlining the reform package's details to lawmakers, Chief Secretary Carrie Lam said that under the government's proposals, the city's 5 million eligible voters could choose from up to three candidates in 2017.
But she said the power to select candidates would remain in the hands of a 1,200-member group of tycoons and other elites viewed as sympathetic to the mainland Chinese government. Lam said the reforms would allow for up to 10 nominees to be shortlisted by the panel, which would then winnow the number down to three candidates through a secret ballot.
That's in line with a blueprint Beijing issued last Aug. 31 limiting the number of candidates and ruling out open nominations for them. Pro-democracy leaders have blasted the restrictions as "fake democracy."
"The proposal allows a 'small circle' to control the election result by controlling the nomination process. Hong Kong will become an election machine," said lawmaker Alan Leong, vowing that the pro-democracy camp would reject it.
He was one of about two dozen opposition lawmakers, most wearing yellow Xs on black shirts and some holding yellow umbrellas — a symbol of the protest movement — who walked out of the legislative chamber after Lam's speech.
There were some minor scuffles outside the legislature as pro-democracy protesters faced off against pro-Beijing demonstrators waving red Chinese flags.
Speaking beforehand, the city's deeply unpopular current leader, Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, said the government would not give any ground to pro-democracy groups' demands.
"At the moment, we don't see any room for compromise," he said, warning lawmakers this could be the last chance in a while to change the system so they should seize it while they can.
"Launching political reform is not easy," said Leung, who was hand-picked for the job by the elite panel. "If it's vetoed this time, I believe it will be a number of years before we can launch it again."
The struggle for Hong Kong's political future has divided the city and highlighted widening differences with its mainland masters.
Residents of Hong Kong, a British colony for more than 150 years, feel their city is a world apart from mainland China thanks to its rule of law and guaranteed Western-style civil liberties such as freedom of speech. Beijing promised to let Hong Kong retain control of much of its own affairs under the principle of "one country, two systems" and pledged to let residents eventually elect their own leader. But the insistence on screening candidates underscores fears about the tightening grip of China's Communist leaders.
Joshua Wong, the teenage student leader who became the protest movement's most famous face, dismissed the reform package.
"Those minor adjustments raised by the government are totally useless," said Wong, 18. "We hope to have the freedom to choose rather than just get the right to elect some of the candidates."
He said that he and other members of his Scholarism group would protest on Saturday in neighborhoods where Lam and other government officials are expected to canvas for support from residents.
In a poll last month by the Chinese University of Hong Kong, 47 percent of 1,009 respondents said they would reject reforms that exclude candidates holding "different political views" from the Chinese government while 40 percent said they would approve it. The survey had a 3.1 percentage point margin of error.
The reform package lowers the threshold somewhat for people to win nomination by reducing the number of votes needed from panel members to get on the shortlist, but not by enough to give an outsider a chance, said University of Hong Kong law professor Michael Davis.
"What the democrats want is to present a democrat to the voters and that's not possible under this system," said Davis, adding that he expects the package will be vetoed by pro-democracy lawmakers.
"I don't see much incentive for them to do otherwise," he said.
AP Videojournalist Annie Ho contributed to this report.
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