HONG KONG - Hong Kong's pro-democracy lawmakers appeared to be standing firm yesterday in their pledge to veto Beijing-backed electoral reforms, as the Asian financial centre's legislature debated the package that will define its democratic future.
The former British colony has reinforced security after mass protests crippled parts of the city late last year, presenting China's ruling Communist Party with one of its biggest political challenges in decades. More than a thousand people converged outside government buildings as debate began on a blueprint that would allow a direct vote for Hong Kong's next leader in 2017, but only from pre-screened, pro-Beijing candidates.
Opponents want a genuinely democratic election for the city's chief executive in line with Beijing's promise of universal suffrage made when the territory returned to Chinese rule in 1997.
Pro-democracy activists climbed over metal fences separating them from the Beijing supporters, many of whom were wearing numbered shirts, the significance of which was not immediately clear. The two sides threw garbage and fights broke out. Police did not intervene.
The council adjourned in the evening without a vote, which is expected by tomorrow.
Hong Kong's 27 "pan-democrats", who hold a crucial one-third veto bloc in the 70-seat Legislative Council, have vowed to oppose what they call a "fake" democratic model.
Three democrats who spoke early during the debate reiterated that pledge. If the reform proposals are passed unexpectedly, pro-democracy groups have vowed to protest.
"This morning, I got a very long and well-written letter, which was from a student. (They) hope I will support the proposal," democrat Ronny Tong, who was close to tears, told reporters before the debate began. "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."
Democratic lawmaker Claudia Mo called the package a "maggot-eaten apple".
Last year's protests revealed sharp divisions in Hong Kong and public opinion on the reforms remains split.
The final round of a rolling poll conducted by three Hong Kong universities showed that 47 per cent of respondents backed the reform proposal. Thirty-eight per cent were against, while 15 per cent were undecided.
Tensions are high, especially after 10 people were arrested this week on suspicion of explosives offences. Six of them appeared in court yesterday charged with conspiracy to cause an explosion.
The six were not asked to enter pleas. A 29-year-old woman was let out on bail of HK$20,000 (S$3,500). Five men were remanded in custody.
Hong Kong was returned to China by Britain under a "one country, two systems" formula that gives it a separate legal system and greater freedoms than the party-ruled mainland - and the promise of universal suffrage. Thousands of activists blockaded major roads across Hong Kong for 79 days last year, defying tear gas and pepper spray, to press China to honour that promise.