A pro-Beijing protester tries to punch a pro-democracy demonstrator after a heated argument outside the government building Wednesday in Hong Kong. (Philippe Lopez/AFP/Getty Images)

Hong Kong’s government unveiled proposals for electoral overhauls Wednesday that will allow citizens to vote for the city’s leader for the first time, but again failed to offer concessions to pro-democracy lawmakers and activists who object to China’s power to veto candidates.

Pro-democracy lawmakers walked out of the city’s mini-parliament, the Legislative Council, after the plans were disclosed, signaling the start of a new phase of political confrontation and deadlock in the Chinese territory.

Last year’s pro-democracy protests — lasting nearly three months — brought hundreds of thousands of people onto the streets of Hong Kong in the most significant public backlash against Beijing’s control of affairs in the former British colony.

But the demonstrations eventually fizzled after the Hong Kong government, under orders from Beijing, refused to give any ground, and police moved in to arrest the final protesters and clear the streets.

Now the government needs to persuade lawmakers to pass its proposals. It would expand the democratic space in Hong Kong by allowing universal suffrage for the first time but still give Chinese authorities overwhelming influence in the selection of candidates.

Pro-democracy protesters hold yellow umbrellas, a symbol of the pro-democracy protests, protest during Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying visit to Mei Foo in Hong Kong. (Lam Yik Fei/Getty Images)

Prospects do not look good. The government needs to sway at least four members of the pro-democracy camp to achieve the required two-thirds majority in the 70-member council.

All but one of the pro-democracy lawmakers walked out of the parliament after the plans were unveiled, wearing yellow crosses on black shirts to signal their pledge to vote down the plans. They left placards with the same design.

Some had also unfurled yellow umbrellas in the chamber, a symbol of last year’s protests.

Before the plans were put forward, Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying warned that this might be the best chance of progress for years. His government has argued that Hong Kong should “pocket” what is on offer from Beijing and hope for more democratic space in the future.

“As of now, we see no room for any compromise,” he told reporters. “To initiate any political reform process is not easy. If this proposal is vetoed, it might be several years before the next opportunity.”

Legislators are expected to vote on the proposals in June. If the plans are blocked, Leung’s successor will be elected in the same way he was: by a 1,200-member committee packed with business leaders, special-interest groups and pro-Beijing loyalists.

Under the new proposals, the same nomination committee would choose two or three candidates for the elections in 2017, each requiring the support of at least half the committee. The territory’s 5 million voters would then choose from the vetted list.

Unveiling the plans, Chief Secretary Carrie Lam urged lawmakers not to miss this “golden opportunity,” which she said reflected people’s aspirations for universal suffrage and represented “the biggest and most important step for Hong Kong’s long-term constitutional development.”

But Alan Leong, leader of the Civic Party and a top pro-democracy lawmaker, rejected the proposals before leading the walkout. Pro-democracy lawmakers fear they will not be allowed to stand for the role of chief executive and want a more open process to nominate candidates.

“The government has ignored public opinion, releasing a fake universal suffrage plan to cheat the Hong Kong people,” he told the legislature. “The government’s proposal allows a small circle of people to control the nomination process, hence control the election outcome, turning the people into voting tools.”

The Hong Kong proposals stick closely to a blueprint issued last year by the Chinese central government, and Beijing has repeatedly insisted it is not prepared to give more ground.

Student activist Joshua Wong, a teenager who became the most recognized face of last year’s protests, said people wanted genuine “freedom to choose,” the Associated Press reported. Wong said members of his Scholarism group would protest on Sunday in neighborhoods when Lam and other government officials plan to canvass support for the proposals.

But Lam said she did not believe the activists would be able to mount anything again on the scale of last year’s protests.

“We believe that after announcing the specific proposals, there will be political parties and organizations and groups which may resort to more aggressive protests, but we don’t think that such a large-scale occupation will happen again,” she said at a news conference, according to the Reuters news agency.

Gu Jinglu contributed to this report.


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