HONG KONG (REUTERS) - Senior Chinese officials are privately expressing confidence that Hong Kong will pass a contentious, Beijing-vetted electoral reform package next week, potentially setting the scene for a fresh wave of pro-democracy protests in the financial hub.
The new signals, which have come in recent days, contrast with more measured statements from Beijing in recent months.
People who have spoken with Chinese officials in both Beijing and Hong Kong told Reuters the officials believed intense backroom lobbying would crack unity among the 27 pro-democracy legislators who have vowed to veto the deal.
The deal requires two-thirds of the 70-seat house, or 47 votes, to pass.
Democrats said it was impossible to break their ranks and that the comments were a last-ditch effort to unnerve them.
"Chinese officials are coming off as confident that it will pass this time, but they are bluffing," said democratic lawmaker Kenneth Leung.
In recent days, Chinese state media has published a series of stories and commentaries saying Hong Kong has no other way to achieve democracy and that the vote needs to pass to ensure the territory's continuing prosperity.
When asked about Beijing's confidence that the package would be passed, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said the plan was "feasible, rational and pragmatic" and the government hoped Hong Kong would "seize the historical opportunity".
Over the past few months, Beijing has both pressured and cajoled the city's pro-democracy lawmakers to back the electoral blueprint that will allow a direct vote for Hong Kong's next leader in 2017, but only of pre-screened, pro-Beijing candidates.
Pro-democracy protesters who brought parts of Hong Kong to a standstill last year say the plan makes a mockery of China's pledges to eventually grant universal suffrage in the territory.
The democrat legislators have so far pledged to vote down what they call a "fake" Chinese democratic model.
Chinese officials said the democrats were not as unified as they appeared. Beijing was confident at least four of the democrats could be persuaded to break ranks, the number of votes required to pass the package, the sources said.
One source close to China's leaders said winning the vote in Hong Kong was important because Beijing could use it as a model for eventual voting changes elsewhere in China. "If the Hong Kong experiment were successful, (similar) elections would be held on the mainland one day," the source told Reuters in Beijing.
Only votes will tell
Despite this, it was not clear whom Beijing might have persuaded to break ranks, nor how.
Mr Peter Wong, a pro-Beijing Hong Kong businessman who serves as a delegate to China's National People's Congress, said: "I feel that the government has a certain level of confidence of getting it through, and I believe it too. But in politics only at the moment of voting will you know."
The possible passage of the blueprint could anger thousands of pro-democracy activists who blockaded major roads across Hong Kong for 79 days last year in the so-called "Umbrella Movement".
Activists said they expected up to 100,000 protesters to join a series of demonstrations beginning this Sunday, culminating in the June 17 legislative debate and vote.
Whichever way the vote swings, at least 5,000 police will be standing by on the day of the vote, according to two senior police officers who spoke on condition of anonymity. Police expect the scale of protests to be much larger and violent if the package is passed.
Britain handed Hong Kong back to China in 1997 under a promise that core personal and commercial freedoms, backed by a British-style legal system, would be protected for 50 years.
Activists believe that democratic reforms are the best way of protecting those freedoms amid signs that Beijing officials now have greater influence over the city's affairs.
Prominent local tycoons including Asia's richest man, Mr Li Ka-shing, have warned that a failure to pass the electoral package could hurt the Hong Kong economy and its standing as Asia's leading financial centre.