Final curtain for last outpost of Hong Kong protest camps

HONG KONG (AFP) - With days to go before lawmakers vote on a controversial political reform package that has split Hong Kong, pro-democracy protesters who have camped out at the legislature for months are preparing to go home.

Around 150 tents, complete with flower pots and large colourful banners calling for democracy, form a final outpost of the sprawling tent city which blocked a highway through the central business district until it was cleared at the end of last year.

The huge camp was part of a mass protest against the Hong Kong government's election plan on how to choose the city's next leader in 2017.

The proposal sticks to a ruling by Beijing that candidates must be vetted by a loyalist committee, derided as "fake democracy" by campaigners.

The bill will go for debate at the legislature on Wednesday before a vote in which pro-democracy lawmakers are expected to block the plan.

Seventy-year-old Uncle Wong, a fixture at the camp, dubbed the Tim Mei New Village, said he gave up a peaceful retirement to fight for true universal suffrage.

"If you don't give me freedom, if you don't give me a society where everybody has equal rights, I'd rather die," said Wong, who has stayed at the site for more than 200 days.

Wong said he would stay until the political reform package was voted out and was moved by student protesters during the Occupy movement.

"Even when it was windy or rainy, the students were still there singing songs. How could I leave? The future is theirs, we who have a conscience must come out."

- 'People have not forgotten' -

Anthony Kwok, 50, who has been at the camp since September, also said he planned to go home after the reform package was voted out.

"If it doesn't go through, then everything will go back to normal, that's better than the situation right now," Kwok said, adding that the Chinese authorities had tried to force through the reforms.

"If you really want Hong Kong or the country to improve, there needs to be communication (between the authorities and the people)," Kwok said.

Police have repeatedly warned that the camp is illegal and that it would be removed "at an appropriate time" but have yet to take action.

To Tiffany Chan, a 25-year-old student university student, the village serves as a reminder that the issue of universal suffrage will not go away.

"The meaning of this village is to remind everybody that this issue of universal suffrage is still here, people have not forgotten about it," Chan told AFP after watching police search her tent as they scoured the camp for "dangerous objects" on Saturday ahead of a series of rallies at the legislature.

Chan said she decided to join the camp in February as a sign of protest against property tycoons - seen to be too cosy with the government - as housing costs soar.

Chan added she felt true universal suffrage would solve the problem.

Hong Kong is semi-autonomous after being handed back to China by Britain in 1997 and has much greater freedoms than the mainland, but there are fears that those are being eroded.