Thousands of people rallied in downtown Hong Kong on Friday in support of the pro-democracy camp's preferred candidate in Sunday's elections for the city's next chief executive, amid a row over a government ban on digital media outlets covering the poll.
Candidate John Tsang reminded the crowd that it was standing near the site of the 2014 Occupy Central movement for universal suffrage, which failed to pressure the ruling Chinese Communist Party into allowing public nominations in a one person, one vote race.
Instead, former financial secretary Tsang, former second-in-command Carrie Lam and retired judge Woo Kwok-hing face off for votes from a 1,200-strong election committee heavily weighted with pro-Beijing voters.
Addressing a crowd waving lit-up phones from the top of his double-decker campaign bus in Edinburgh Square, Tsang said: "We are gathered here tonight to show our love for this city of ours."
"This an opportunity for us to rebuild trust, to unify our community and to rekindle hope especially for the young people," he said, to be
greeted by cheers from supporters.
Tsang has led opinion polls carried out by the University of Hong Kong, the Chinese University of Hong Kong and Lingnan University since the beginning of the year.
But Sunday's election has been marred by ongoing rows over interference from Beijing and over restrictions on media access, with the government sticking to its policy not to issue official press accreditation to news outlets without a print edition, including the online-only Hong Kong Free Press, Stand News and Local Press HK.
Hong Kong's High Court on Friday refused to overturn the restrictions at the request of the Hong Kong Journalists Association (HKJA), but said it would accept a judicial review of the government's online media policy.
The HKJA argued that its members should be accredited as bona-fide journalists regardless of what kind of media outlet they work for. The group says it is in the public interest for digital media to receive the same access as other media outlets.
"Currently, Hong Kong digital media outlets are barred from accessing government press releases and press conferences, and are unable to ask questions of officials," the Hong Kong Free Press reported on Thursday.
Meanwhile, the city's police have deployed more than 1,000 officers to key locations ahead the opening of Sunday's polls at 9.00 a.m., senior superintendent Tse Kwok-wai told reporters.
Opposition groups have said they plan demonstrations in the area before and during the election, amid warnings from police that demonstrations must be approved in advance or face prosecution.
"Organizations that fail to notify police of a mass activity ... will be regarded as an unauthorized assembly, and the organizers, leaders and any participants ... may face charges for being in breach of the law," Tse warned.
While polls show John Tsang has the backing of the general public, Carrie Lam is widely seen as Beijing's preferred candidate, and public popularity may not be enough to sway voters in Sunday's secret ballot, which comes against a background of intense, behind-the-scenes lobbying, media reports indicate.
All 325 pan-democratic voters on the Election Committee have agreed to throw their votes behind Tsang, based on his popularity, a move that was criticized by Woo.
"They're a disgrace to their own team," Woo said on Friday. "He is a pro-establishment candidate, and he hasn't said how he will tackle a whole range of issues."
But Democratic Party lawmaker Andrew Wan said the agreement had no binding power, and that individual members were still free to vote as they see fit on Sunday.
"We just discussed it and reached a consensus, but that's very different from the Chinese Communist Party, which retaliates against you and threatens you if you don't do what they say," Wan said.
"We won't be doing anything like that."
Hong Kong Economic Journal commentator Raymond Tsoi said Tsang appears to have secured around 400 of the votes on the Election Committee, far below the minimum of 600 required to win the election, but didn't rule out his chances altogether.
"Given his high popularity, there is still a chance that enough Election Committee members from across the political spectrum might want to give Tsang an opportunity to take the reins of the city and implement his plans," Tsoi wrote.
"The lack of Beijing’s blessing could be Tsang’s biggest disadvantage. It remains to be seen if his popularity with Hong Kong people can save the day for him," he said.
But Chinese officials have repeatedly indicated that they have the final say over who replaces outgoing chief executive Leung Chun-ying, potentially rendering the final result meaningless.
Earlier this week, the pro-Beijing Ta Kung Pao newspaper reported that some young Tsang supporters it described as “small potatoes” have links to the United States via the consultancy APCO Worldwide, which has ties to former US president Bill Clinton and investor George Soros.
An Aug. 31, 2014 "interpretation" of the Basic Law issued by the China's National People's Congress (NPC) standing committee said candidates in forthcoming elections must be vetted by a pro-Beijing committee, in the event of a one person, one vote scenario.
The decree sparked the 79-day Occupy Central democracy movement in the same year, with protesters slamming the arrangement as "fake universal suffrage."
The NPC is the final and highest power tasked with interpreting Hong Kong's Basic Law, but only after the territory's own legal processes have been exhausted at the final appeals court, which was set up in 1997 to take over the role filled by the House of Lords under British colonial rule.
However, pan-democratic politicians have criticized such interventions as interference in the city's affairs, breaking with the promises of a "high degree of autonomy" made as part of the handover treaty with the U.K.
Reported by Dai Weisen and Goh Fung for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Chen Pan for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.