Political commentators in Hong Kong warned on Thursday that pro-democracy candidates now look likely to be shut out of 2017 elections altogether, as further attacks on two Hong Kong media executives renewed fears about press freedom in the former British colony.
On Thursday, former colonial-era chief secretary Anson Chan, who chairs the Hong Kong 2020 campaign group, unveiled a political reform proposal that stopped short of calling for direct public nominations for candidates, a key campaigning point for the city's pan-democratic parties.
Chan said she hoped the proposal would "bridge the sharp divide" in public opinion over the election process.
Pro-Beijing politicians in the territory have repeatedly shied away from public nomination, saying that only "patriotic" candidates should be approved to join the race.
Under Chan's plan, a 1,400-strong nominating committee with 317 members directly elected by all three million of Hong Kong's voters would "ensure that all are able to participate in the nomination process."
Hong Kong current affairs commentator Camoes Tam said such a system could lock out candidates from Hong Kong's outspoken pro-democracy camp of politicians.
"I fear that this channel may now be closed," Tam said.
Closer to Basic Law
Beijing loyalist Tam Yiu-chung, who heads the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, said Chan's proposals were closer to Hong Kong's mini-constitution, the Basic Law.
However, China's rubber-stamp parliament, the National People's Congress (NPC), which has final say in the interpretation of the Basic Law, ruled in 2007 that the nominating committee should be modeled on the election committee that elected the present chief executive, which was heavily weighted in favor of Beijing's allies.
Under Chan's proposal, prospective candidates would need the backing of 10 percent of the committee's members, drawn from different sectors of society, including politicians.
Camoes Tam said public nominations were no longer the main focus of debate, however.
"There has been no breakthrough on the issue of allowing members of the public to nominate candidates," Tam said.
"China's bottom line is that it wants to eliminate certain candidates who don't pass its criteria at the nomination stage."
"Previous experience has shown that no-one has ever won an election after being nominated by members of the public as a presidential candidate, whether in the United States or Taiwan," he said.
'Siege' mentality in media
The growing concerns over the direction Hong Kong's electoral process may be heading come amid a "siege" mentality among the city's formerly freewheeling media, a local paper commented.
"New attack brings siege atmosphere," ran the headline of an editorial in the Standard newspaper on Thursday, which called for neutrality while police investigated the attacks on Hong Kong Morning News vice-president Lei Lun-han and news controller Lam Kin-ming.
Lei and Lam were attacked on a street in the Tsim Sha Tsui commercial district by four men wielding iron bars, police said.
Both were discharged from hospital after sustaining minor injuries.
However, former Ming Pao editor-in-chief Kevin Lau remains in hospital following an attack by two men wielding meat cleavers last month.
Concern over attacks
The United States said it was "troubled" by the recent attacks.
"While the details of the most recent attack are not completely clear, we are troubled by a series of incidents over the past year that seem to target Hong Kong media figures," U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters.
"Hong Kong's well-established tradition for respect for the rule of law and internationally recognized fundamental freedoms, including freedom of the press, remain crucial to Hong Kong's long-standing success and reputation as a leading center of global commerce," she said.
The Chinese-language Hong Kong Morning News, which has marketed itself as free from the influence of Beijing, said its planned launch would go ahead later in the year, in spite of the attacks.
"A balanced and credible newspaper is needed in today's Hong Kong news environment," the group said in a statement on Hong Kong news website House News.
The Hong Kong Journalists Association expressed "serious concern" and the Foreign Correspondents' Club (FCC) highlighted its increasing concern for media workers in the city.
'Deepening shadows' for press freedom
The FCC said the attacks highlighted "deepening shadows" for Hong Kong's press freedom.
"After the attack on Kevin Lau, who remains in hospital with grave injuries, this latest incident only underscores the deepening shadows being cast over the media landscape in Hong Kong from violence, intimidation, and interference by political and commercial interests," it said in a statement on its website.
Hong Kong's Basic Law allows for full universal suffrage to take place in 2017 and 2020, and this clause was confirmed in an interpretation by China's parliament, which has ultimate power in the matter, in 2007.
But many analysts expect Beijing to back away from universal suffrage for 2017, and for legislative elections in 2020.
Recent public polls have shown the majority of Hong Kong's citizens are in favor of more democracy, but the territory's pro-democracy politicians have remained divided on the practicalities of such an election.
Reported by Lin Jing for RFA's Cantonese Service and by Xin Lin for the Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.