HONG KONG — Thousands of people returned on Sunday to streets near Hong Kong government headquarters — the site last year of months of student-led protests for freer elections — hoping to press lawmakers to block Beijing’s plan for selecting the city’s top official in 2017.
In contrast with the hope for change, however small, that pervaded the early days of the protests last year, the protesters on Sunday said they did not hold out hope for last-minute concessions from Beijing or the Hong Kong government. Instead, they called on the pro-democracy members of the legislature to vote down the plan, as they have repeatedly promised they would.
“We know that Beijing will not budge,” said Nathan Law, leader of the Federation of Students, a leading student group in the protests last year, which blocked major roads around government offices and in other key districts in the city of seven million. “We’re here to tell the legislators to keep to their promises and veto the proposal.”
The protests began last August after the Chinese government passed an edict that would allow the public to vote for the city’s leader, or chief executive, starting 2017 — but under rules that limit candidates to those endorsed by a Beijing-friendly committee. Since Hong Kong’s handover from British to Chinese rule in 1997, the chief executive has been chosen by the committee, made up of less than 1,200 voters, and that method would continue to be used if the proposed changes do not pass.
A bill that would turn Beijing’s plan into local laws will be presented to the Hong Kong Legislative Council on Wednesday, with a vote expected shortly after.
The vote this week will end months of political debate over whether to accept what critics of the plan see as a failure to provide what they call a meaningful “one person, one vote” election. On Friday, a widely cited poll on the proposed changes conducted by three Hong Kong universities showed for the first time that the number of respondents opposed to the plan exceeded those in favor of it, by a two percentage-point margin.
The poll, conducted on a rolling basis since late April by the University of Hong Kong, Polytechnic University and the Chinese University of Hong Kong, includes about 1,000 respondents and has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus three percentage points.
To get the two-thirds majority in the Legislative Council needed to pass the proposal into law, the Hong Kong government needs to coax at least four of the pro-democratic legislators to vote for it. In talks leading up to the vote so far, the government has failed to convince even one of them to change their mind.
“If the bill is passed somehow miraculously, there will be huge demonstrations and possibly very ugly clashes with the police,” said Willy Wo-Lap Lam, a history and China Studies professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
In light of the possible confrontations, officials have put up metal fences around the entrances to the Legislative Council’s building. On Saturday, the police confiscated wood, nails and glass bottles from the dozens of protest tents that still remain standing near the government buildings to prevent those items from being used as weapons by “radicals” during protests this week.
“Police will not tolerate any violent and illegal behavior and will take resolute actions to restore public order,” Cheung Tak-keung, Assistant Commissioner of Police, said in a press briefing on Friday.
As the vote nears and polls suggest waning public support for the proposal, Beijing has shown no sign of yielding to the protesters’ demands. On the other hand, three top Beijing officials overseeing Hong Kong affairs told legislators last month that their “principles and bottom lines are unwavering.”
That includes the requirement that voters could only choose from among two or three candidates approved by the nominating committee.
“The position has been made extremely clear by the central authorities as well as the Hong Kong government,” Carrie Lam, the No. 2 official in the Hong Kong government, told reporters on Sunday morning. “I don’t think there is any last-minute concession that could be made.”
The police estimated that at its peak, the event on Sunday drew more than 3,100 people.
Lee Wai-kai, a retired high school teacher who was among the protesters on Sunday, said that it was the Hong Kong government’s responsibility to present a satisfactory election plan, and, until then, “We can only keep pressuring the government.”