In a fresh blow to the Occupy Central pro-democracy movement on Monday, Hong Kong's leader warned that there are no guarantees that the city's legislature will move towards full democracy by 2020.
Responding to demands from pan-democratic lawmakers, who hold 24 out of 60 seats in the Legislative Council (LegCo), chief executive Leung Chun-ying said his administration couldn't promise that all lawmakers would be directly elected by 2020, one election away from next year's scheduled poll.
"This isn't something that the current administration can promise," Leung told reporters, adding that Beijing's wishes would have to be obeyed amid huge popular pressure for universal suffrage.
Currently, 30 of LegCo’s 60 seats are directly elected from geographical constituencies, while the remainder is chosen by businesses, professions, labor unions, civic and religious groups.
The abolition of these "functional constituencies" and the direct election of all 60 seats were a key demand of the largely student-led Occupy Central movement last year.
Leung's comments came after thousands of pro-democracy protesters took to Hong Kong's streets on Sunday for the first time after the end of last year's 79-day mass protest and occupation calling for universal suffrage in the former British colony.
While the turnout was much smaller than the crowds that surged onto the streets at the height of the "Umbrella Movement," organizers said public feeling is still at loggerheads with Beijing's plans for future elections in the city.
Maintaining the status quo
Leung said the only alternative to following Beijing's election reform plan is to maintain the status quo, under which the chief executive is chosen by a 1,200-strong election committee handpicked by Beijing, and under which only half of Hong Kong's lawmakers are directly elected.
"That is one of only two options open to us—to make no headway at all," Leung said.
He said elections in 2017 to choose the next chief executive would be implemented according to the Aug. 31 framework laid out by the National People's Congress (NPC), which would permit only candidates vetted by a committee beholden to Beijing to run for the territory's top executive post.
Occupy Central campaigners, many of whom are students, have dismissed the plan as "fake universal suffrage," because pan-democratic candidates are unlikely to be selected.
Pan-democratic lawmakers have threatened to veto the government's electoral reform bill in LegCo in a bid to win further concessions on universal suffrage.
Leung's second-in-command Carrie Lam said there would be no horse-trading with lawmakers over the reform package.
"If we miss this opportunity, then it will actually be a lose-lose situation, because we will have lost the chance to elect a chief executive through universal suffrage," Lam said.
"We will also lose the opportunity to directly elect the whole of LegCo," she told a group of business leaders on Monday.
"To put it simply, you can rest assured that we be making no deals with the pan-democrats over the 2017 elections for chief executive," she said.
Democratic chairwoman and lawmaker Emily Lau called on civil society to reject the NPC's plan outright, and to get together to formulate their own reform plan.
Pan-democratic lawmaker Albert Ho said no talks had been held between government officials and pan-democrats, and that making public comments about possible concessions was a bad idea.
"If you tell people what concessions you might be prepared to make before anyone has even sought you out to discuss it, then people are going to think you'll be prepared to make a whole lot more," Ho said.
"This can't lead to a good outcome."
Meanwhile, political commentator Alex Lo, writing in the South China Morning Post newspaper, said the functional constituencies are "rotten boroughs" impeding the political development of Hong Kong.
"Beijing has drawn an explicit linkage between the functional constituencies in LegCo and the future nomination committee for the chief executive," Lo wrote.
He said the ruling Chinese Communist Party is very unlikely to abolish the functional constituencies, because the concept has inspired the principles on which the election committee is formed.
"If Beijing kills the functional constituencies, it would not only undermine the balance of power in LegCo [between pro-establishment and pan-democratic camps], but the raison d'être of the nomination committee," Lo wrote.
"Those rotten boroughs have become the main stumbling block to political reform."
China has resumed sovereignty over Hong Kong since the 1997 handover using the "one country, two systems" formula, which allows people in the city freedoms not enjoyed by mainland citizens.
While the territory's mini-constitution, the Basic Law, specifies universal suffrage as an eventual goal, Beijing's interpretation is at odds with that of pan-democratic politicians and democracy activists.
Reported by Lin Jing for RFA's Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.