Hong Kong's government on Wednesday officially put forth its proposed rules for the territory's scheduled 2017 election of a chief executive, opening the next chapter in a long-running fight over democratic reforms.
A group of legislators immediately denounced the Beijing-backed plan as undemocratic and vowed to veto it when it comes up for a vote this summer.
The rules would allow a 1,200-member committee to vet candidates, first choosing five to 10 nominees, then whittling that down to two or three to appear on a ballot for the territory's 5 million eligible voters to decide.
The procedure would mark the first time Hong Kongers could cast ballots directly for the top official in the semi-autonomous Chinese territory.
Under current rules, the chief executive is chosen directly by a 1,200-member committee.
Yet as soon as Chief Secretary Carrie Lam, the territory's No. 2 official, had finished delivering the proposal to the territory's Legislative Council, Alan Leong, the legislator who convenes the so-called pan-democratic camp, took to the floor to decry it.
"This proposal will continue to allow a clique to control the elections and condemn the public to acting as voting automatons," he declared.
Leong then led his kindred colleagues -- all dressed in black T-shirts emblazoned with a bright yellow cross-check mark to signify their intended "no" vote -- to stomp out of the chamber in protest.
To be adopted, the rules still need approval by a two-thirds majority in the Legislative Council.
Hong Kong, a former British colony, reverted to Chinese rule 18 years ago under a framework known as "one country, two systems." The territory of 7.2 million people has its own legislature and is governed under a separate mini-constitution called the Basic Law that enshrines freedoms that aren't, in some cases, protected elsewhere in China.
Last August, the standing committee of China's National People's Congress put forth a framework for the 2017 vote that envisioned limiting the choice of candidates to two or three, all approved by a majority of members of a selection committee. Critics say the committee is stacked with pro-business and "pro-Beijing" members.
The framework touched off a wave of street protests lasting 10 weeks, with thousands of demonstrators clogging major thoroughfares and surrounding government headquarters. The sit-ins ended in mid-December after police acting on a court order cleared the streets.
As of now, the pan-democratic bloc seems to have mustered the numbers to make good on its veto threat. But its four-vote margin will be a prime target as proponents of the new rules package aim to crack the united front. Officials in Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying's administration have said they'll pull out all the stops to galvanize the public and persuade some legislators to switch sides before the proposal comes up for a vote in July.
Lam warned that this would be Hong Kongers' only chance for "one person, one vote" in the foreseeable future. If the Legislative Council votes the proposal down, the chief executive will continue to be chosen by the same 1,200-member committee.
"If we remain stuck in the current stalemate, how could it possibly benefit Hong Kong's democratic development?" she asked.
Legislative Council President Jasper Tsang urged both sides to work out their differences to avert a veto and a repeat of last year's vociferous street battles.
"If both sides merely focus on mobilizing their base in order to duke it out in the court of public opinion, that won't solve the current conundrum," he said. "It's far more important to sit down and talk."
Yet, Leung's administration seems to have ruled out such discussions. "This is no time for concession but the time for the pan-democrats to allow the proposal to move forward," Lam said.
"This is hugely disappointing because there was actually room for compromise," said Willy Lam, a Hong Kong-based political analyst. "This is a decision from Beijing; officials here just toe the line. They have no authority. Beijing wants the Hong Kong people to know who is the boss and that it won't budge even under duress."
The Chinese leadership, he added, "doesn't mind taking the risks" of provoking more protests.
Student leaders of the pro-democracy movement have threatened to mobilize the public for another wave of civil disobedience actions, especially if the Legislative Council passes the proposal.
Willy Lam questioned whether the public has the appetite for further large-scale demonstrations. Nevertheless, the Legislative Council complex, which was targeted by protesters last year, is being fortified with metal barriers and steel shutters. A color-coded risk assessment system will be put in place next week to keep visitors at bay should authorities deem it necessary.
Outside, about 80 tents remain pitched, housing die-hard pro-democracy demonstrators.
Opinion polls conducted by the University of Hong Kong in March found that at least 41% of respondents said they believe that any vote conducted under the proposed framework would constitute a fake election, with 28% disagreeing with that premise. Three universities will join forces later this week to conduct nonbinding, rolling polls throughout the next two months to ask voters if they accept or reject the proposal.
Carrie Lam, for one, maintained that the framework would stand. "This is the principle, and it is also the bottom line," she said.