Hong Kong's government on Tuesday sought to play down calls for public nomination of candidates as it requested legal changes to allow the city's residents to elect their own leader in 2017, sparking a wave of criticism from pro-democracy and civil society groups in the former British colony.
In a report to the National People's Congress (NPC), China's rubber-stamp parliament, Hong Kong Chief Executive C.Y. Leung said the elections would be run according to the special administration territory's mini-constitution, the Basic Law, which calls for election candidates to be vetted by a special committee before being approved to run.
In past elections, such a committee has been stacked with pro-Beijing candidates, making the selection of a pro-democratic candidate highly unlikely.
Leung's claim that a broad majority of Hong Kong people support such a plan comes after an estimated half a million people took to the streets to call for public nominations on July 1, the 17th anniversary of the handover to Chinese rule.
"What is important is that if the international standards do not comply with the Basic Law and the decisions of the NPC standing committee, we have to follow the Basic Law and the NPC standing committee's decision," he told a news conference later Tuesday.
The announcement by Leung and his second-in-command Carrie Lam of the results of a public consultation based on responses from 120,000 groups and individuals, sparked angry protests in Hong Kong's legislature on Tuesday.
Lawmaker Leung Kwok-hung threw an inflatable hammer and a birdcage with the words "civil nomination" written on it at Lam, before being dragged out of the chamber shouting "I want civil nomination!"
Meanwhile, pro-democracy legislator Albert Chan ripped up a copy of the report, shouting "Fake report, fake consultation!" before also being removed.
Leung's report said "mainstream opinion" in Hong Kong supports nomination by committee only.
"Such power of nomination must not be undermined or bypassed directly or indirectly," the report said.
Civil rights and pro-democracy groups under the Occupy Central campaign have vowed to take over Hong Kong's downtown financial and shopping district if voters are denied public nominations.
Some 800,000 people voted in an informal referendum run by the Occupy campaign in June in support of three different nomination methods, all of which included public nomination options.
But Beijing officials and the Hong Kong government said the poll, while expressing the opinions of some Hong Kong people, had no basis in law, while state-run media slammed it as "illegal" and the work of a radical minority.
Civic Party lawmaker Claudia Mo said the report had used "evasive language" to disguise popular support for public nominations.
"The report makes light of the fact that half a million people took to the streets of Hong Kong on July 1, and that 800,000 voted in the referendum," she said.
"They are stripping Hong Kong of its fundamental political rights."
Far broader support
Alex Chow, secretary general of the Hong Kong Federation of Students, said support for public nomination is far broader than the government admits.
"Public nomination is clearly the favorite among the general public," Chow said. "And yet in this report, it has been relegated to an also-ran."
"Carrie Lam also writes in her report that it is mainstream public opinion that candidates should love China and love Hong Kong," he said. "But she ducked out of specifying how she defined mainstream opinion."
Politics professor Joseph Cheng, who co-authored proposals for nomination that have apparently now been rejected, said he was "extremely disappointed" in the prospects for Hong Kong's democracy.
"It has been absolutely clear for a while now that the majority of Hong Kong people support public nominations; we haven't seen better levels of support for any other proposal," he said.
He said the committee in charge of the consultation had acted out of bias from the start.
"We think that the government's consultation committee acted unfairly, because the Secretary for Constitutional Affairs only met with us once, and there was no genuine communication or dialogue to speak of," Cheng said.
"All they did was ask us to clarify some of the views and requests in our submission."
Occupy Central co-founder Benny Tai told local media that he wasn't satisfied that the government's report accurately reflects public opinion in the territory, and that the consultation was carried out in a biased manner.
"We three founders of Occupy Central never got a real chance to talk to the committee," he told Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK).
"If they were in earnest about this, then they should have given everyone a chance at a dialogue with them."
Meanwhile, NPC Basic Law expert Rao Geping told Cable TV that the ultimate power over whether or not to amend the Basic Law to allow for public nomination of candidates rests with the NPC Standing Committee.
Democratic Party chairwoman Emily Lau told RFA said her party's bid to slash the number of partially elected "functional constituencies" in the Legislative Council (LegCo) now looked set to fail.
"This is awful, because...we believe that changing the way LegCo is elected is crucial, so there are fewer functional constituencies," Lau said.
Currently, Hong Kong elects exactly half of its 60 lawmakers via universal suffrage from geographical constituencies, while the remainder are elected by professional bodies and trade groups, many of which have extensive business ties in China.
The calls for public nominations come amid wider concerns about Hong Kong's traditional freedoms and judicial independence, in the wake of a June 10 white paper in which the ruling Chinese Communist Party asserted its ultimate authority over the city and its seven million inhabitants.
Journalists in the territory say self-censorship by the city's once freewheeling press is becoming common in the wake of a series of physical attacks on key media figures, the withdrawal of major advertising accounts from a pro-democracy newspaper and the sacking of a popular and outspoken radio talk show host last year.
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.