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China refuses to give Hong Kong right to choose leaders; protesters vow vengeance

As Beijing tightens its grip on the region, pro-democracy activists promise to occupy the business district

Dozens of pro-democracy activists disrputed a briefing on Monday by a senior Chinese official who had been sent to Hong Kong to explain a ruling on Hong Kong's election. (Reuters)

China’s parliament decided Sunday against letting Hong Kong voters nominate candidates for the 2017 election, despite growing agitation for democratic reform.

The move is likely to spark long-promised protests in Hong Kong’s business district, as activists began planning and mobilizing within hours of the announcement.

The decision by China’s National People’s Congress essentially allows Communist leaders to weed out any candidates not loyal to Beijing.

“It’s not unexpected, but it is still infuriating,” said legislator Emily Lau, chairwoman of the Democratic Party. “This is not what Beijing promised. They’ve lied to the people of Hong Kong. And it’s clear we are dealing with an authoritarian regime.”

Defending China’s ruling, Li Fei, deputy secretary general of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, said allowing public nominations in the election for Hong Kong’s leader would be too “chaotic.”

From left, founders of the Occupy Central civil disobedience movement, Chan Kin-man, Benny Tai and Chu Yiu-ming speak to supporters during a rally after China's legislature has ruled out open nominations in elections for Hong Kong's leader. (Vincent Yu/AP)

Since 1997, when Britain handed control of Hong Kong back to China, Beijing had promised to allow the region’s residents to vote for the chief executive beginning in 2017.

Chinese leaders presented the Sunday ruling as a democratic breakthrough because it gives Hong Kongers a direct vote, but the decision also makes clear that Chinese leaders would retain a firm hold on the process through a nominating committee tightly controlled by Beijing. And, according to a new clause, only candidates who “love the country, and love Hong Kong” would be allowed.

The ruling comes after a summer that has featured some of the largest and most high-profile protests in Hong Kong in years.

Behind much of the pro-democracy campaign in Hong Kong is the Occupy Central With Love and Peace movement, whose organizers have threatened to shut down the financial district if Beijing does not grant authentic universal suffrage.

On Sunday night, within hours of the announcement, hundreds of Occupy Central supporters had assembled in the rain outside the Hong Kong government’s headquarters.

At the demonstration, organizers said that their movement was entering a new stage of civil disobedience and that they would mount waves of protests in the coming weeks. However, they did not give details, apparently looking to avoid problems with authorities.

In an online statement, organizers said the movement “has considered occupying Central only as the last resort, an action to be taken only if all chances of dialogue have been exhausted and there is no other choice. We are very sorry to say that today all chances of dialogue have been exhausted and the occupation of Central will definitely happen.”

Protesters take part of the rally for the beginning of Occupy Central movement outside Central Government Offices on August 31, 2014 in Hong Kong, China. (Lam Yik Fei/Getty Images)

Authorities in Hong Kong have been preparing for Beijing’s announcement for days, and security was tight Sunday at the government headquarters, with police and barricades deployed.

Driving the unrest is a sense among many in Hong Kong that they are slowly losing control over their city. An influx of mainlanders is fueling competition for products and services. There is also growing fear that Hong Kong’s values, such as democracy and freedom of speech, are beginning to bend under increasing pressure from Beijing.

Some have criticized the Occupy Central movement, saying its demonstrations put business — the lifeblood of Hong Kong — at risk.

“The protest they are talking about, it could result in much economic damage, depending on how many are involved and for how long,” said legislator Regina Ip, who has long criticized the movement. “We don’t want concern to spread that Hong Kong is getting out of control. This is a perception that is bad for investment.”

China’s state-run media also has run stories in recent days painting Hong Kong’s democracy activists as agents of subversion directed by Western powers.

This summer, activists organized an unofficial referendum on voting rights that drew 780,000 participants — more than a fifth of Hong Kong voters. And in July, tens of thousands turned out for one of the largest pro-democracy demonstrations in the region’s history.

Xu Jing contributed to this report.

William Wan is the Post's roving national correspondent, based in Washington, D.C. He previously served as the paper’s religion reporter and diplomatic correspondent and for three years as the Post’s China correspondent in Beijing.

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