Crowds of protesters on either side of a tense debate on Hong Kong's political future faced off outside the city's legislature amid tight security on Wednesday as lawmakers called a halt to the first day of debate ahead of a crucial vote.
Protesters waving banners in support of Beijing's plan for the 2017 elections for the former British colony's next chief executive chanted "Vote out the pan-democrats in 2016, say yes to 2017!"
Meanwhile, pro-democracy protesters held up the yellow and black banners of last year's Umbrella Movement, which has-—together with the 27 pan-democratic lawmakers in the Legislative Council (LegCo)—dismissed Beijing's electoral reform plan as "fake universal suffrage."
"Our destiny, our freedom! Say no to fake universal suffrage!" they shouted from the other side of crowd barriers placed by police.
Wong Tze Yuet, spokesman for the student activist group Scholarism, which played a key role in last year's 79-day Occupy Central civil disobedience movement, said the pro-democracy camp outnumbered the pro-reform camp several times over, in spite of earlier reports from government broadcaster RTHK that the pro-Beijing camp was larger.
"When we saw how many people there were from the other side, Scholarism called on everyone to gather here, to tell the government our opinion," he said.
"We think that this reform package should be voted down, unless something unexpected happens," Wong told RFA on Wednesday, after lawmakers adjourned for further debate on Thursday.
The students were joined outside LegCo by key figures in the Occupy Central campaign, which drew hundreds of thousands of people onto the streets at its height after riot police fired tear gas and pepper spray at protesters shielding themselves with umbrellas.
'We want a real choice'
Under the terms of an Aug. 31 decree from China's parliament, the National People's Congress (NPC), Hong Kong's five million voters will each cast a ballot in the 2017 race for chief executive, but they may only choose among candidates vetted by a pro-Beijing committee.
Critics say the arrangement will mean that no pan-democratic politicians, who currently hold enough of the 60 LegCo seats to block the plan, will be able to run in the election.
A demonstrator surnamed Wong said she had also taken part in the Occupy Central protests that took over key highways and intersections in downtown Hong Kong last year.
"We want genuine universal suffrage, not fake universal suffrage," Wong told RFA. "We want a real choice of who we elect."
"We don't want bunch of rotten apples and oranges that have been picked out for us. That's no use to us," she said.
"I felt I had to do something to show my support."
Wong said she doesn't expect the reform bill to pass in LegCo, in a vote that is scheduled for Thursday at the earliest.
"I don't think it's got much chance of getting through," she said. "But we are afraid that the Communist Party will be using all sorts of tactic behind the scenes that we haven't thought of."
"They have a very long history of political machinations."
Vow to block the plan
Pan-democratic lawmakers have vowed to block the plan when it is put to the vote, in spite of growing calls from "pro-establishment" Beijing-backed groups and officials to take what's on offer now, in the hope of greater democracy to come.
But a pro-reform supporter surnamed Chong said the pan-democrats are out of touch with public opinion in Hong Kong, after a string of opinion polls suggested support for the reform plan is growing.
"This is a very important day for Hong Kong, which will take us away from the appointed governors of the British colonial era, to an era in which five million voters elect the chief executive, one person, one vote," Chong said.
"I think we should support it."
Chief executive C.Y. Leung has warned that no further reforms will be tabled, should the pan-democrats carry out their veto threat, and that the current system will remain in place.
An opinion poll carried out by three Hong Kong universities showed that supporters of the electoral reform bill now outnumber its detractors, local media reported.
The survey by the University of Hong Kong, the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK), and Hong Kong Polytechnic University found that 45 percent of respondents were backing the government’s proposal, while 39 percent opposed it.
An earlier result had put support for the reform package at 41.7 percent and opposition at 43 percent, the Apple Daily newspaper reported.
Pressure to vote
Government officials are apparently engaged in a last-ditch bid to persuade pan-democratic politicians to vote for the bill, lawmaker Kenneth Leung told reporters.
Leung told RTHK that a friend had called him and asked him to abstain from voting rather than voting no, although he didn't know who had asked the friend to do so.
Chief secretary Carrie Lam, C.Y. Leung's second-in-command, told lawmakers they should take what was being offered, and pay attention to growing public support for the reform package.
"A vote in your hand is better than having none," Lam told LegCo on the first day of the debate.
"The vote represents the right to vote for five million people," she said.
Meanwhile, Starry Lee, who heads the pro-establishment Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong, criticized Occupy Central activists for threatening to launch the campaign in the early stages of the political debate.
The threat of a mass protest movement had likely sparked Beijing's Aug. 31 decree on the electoral process, Lee told lawmakers.
Pan-democratic legislators hit out at tight security throughout the LegCo complex on Wednesday, following reports of a bomb threat earlier in the week.
"We are here with the trust of all of the people of Hong Kong, who think we are worthy of that trust," pan-democratic lawmaker and political activist Leung Kwok-hung told reporters after undergoing security checks.
"If the police have received some intelligence that any LegCo member is likely to carry out a violent attack, then they should apply to the LegCo speaker to arrest them," Leung said.
"They shouldn't force all LegCo and Executive Council members to undergo these humiliating security checks," he said.
LegCo speaker Tsang Yok-sing defended his decision to raise the threat level at LegCo to amber on Tuesday.
"If we had ignored warnings from police following their risk assessment, and did nothing, and then a serious incident occurred here ... this would set a bad precedent," Tsang told reporters.
But lawmaker and Labour Party chairman Lee Cheuk-yan said the government was deliberately creating an atmosphere of terror ahead of the vote.
"They are trying to make it seem as if Hong Kong is becoming ungovernable because of the political reform debate," Lee said. "But I believe this is a self-constructed, self-directed and staged drama."
"There are clearly more security personnel than there are protesters," he said.
"How did Hong Kong get this way? Don't they trust the people of Hong Kong?"
Beijing sent out a warning to lawmakers on Wednesday as the debate opened, in an opinion article published by the state news agency Xinhua.
"Lawmakers are to be reminded that they have pledged allegiance to the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People's Republic of China when taking office," the article said.
"If they choose to oppose social advancement—allowing personal gains and political scheming to kidnap public opinions—they will be held accountable for obstructing democratic development in Hong Kong for generations and beyond," it said, without detailing to whom they would be accountable.
If the bill is rejected in LegCo, "[Hong Kong] society risks being torn further apart; and the city may dwindle into trivial political bickering," it warned.
Reported by Chiu Tze-ho, Wen Yuqing and Lin Jing for the Cantonese Service, and by Yang Fan for the Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.