BEIJING — Hong Kong’s government began a second round of “public consultations” on political reform Wednesday even as it signaled its unwillingness to yield ground to demands for greater democracy.
Police, meanwhile, threatened to arrest the leaders of last year’s protest movement, sparked by Beijing’s plan to vet election candidates in the former British colony.
The student-led rallies and occupation-style protest camps marked the most serious challenge to authorities since Hong Kong came under Chinese control in 1997.
Hong Kong’s government said Beijing’s decision on the election process cannot be questioned. It allows universal suffrage but places controls over who can be on the ballot for chief executive in 2017.
That leaves very little room to maneuver during this round of public consultations, barring some minor, technical details on the two-stage process for nominating candidates.
The start of the consultation process comes a day after the Hong Kong government submitted a report to Beijing detailing the major events of the two-month protests. However, authorities and opposition factions are as far apart as ever.
Even writing such a report had been presented by the government as a concession during talks with the protesters. But the document did not satisfy protest leaders, who denounced it as “poison,” “a waste of paper” and “a collection of news clippings and trash talk.”
The report described the pro-democracy movement as a “series of unlawful rallies” that blocked roads and “aroused widespread concern in the community.”
It concluded that it was “the common aspiration” of officials and the people of Hong Kong to implement universal suffrage in accordance with the rules set down by Beijing.
That conclusion did not impress student leader Lester Shum, who said it would “only make people angrier.” He described the report as a collection of news clips that could have been put together by a secondary school student, while others said it lacked analysis or investigation.
Another student leader, Joshua Wong, said the report was supposed to have been a concession — or a sweetener — from the government, “but it is actually poison, not even wrapped in a sweet coating.”
Shum and Wong said police had phoned them this week and told them to report later this month, when they would face arrest for participating in what was deemed an unlawful assembly and possibly other charges.
The South China Morning Post said more than 30 protest leaders would be charged, including at least four pro-democracy lawmakers, but would be granted bail, while 100 others could face arrest in a second phase.
Anson Chan, who was the territory’s chief bureaucrat immediately after the handover from British rule, said there was no point in having a public consultation process when the government had shown “no desire to forge a consensus” and left “no room for maneuver” in what reforms could take place.
The government’s report, she said in a telephone interview, “had completely failed to bring out why people are so angry and so frustrated.”
“It is increasingly clear that Hong Kong is being governed by Beijing,” she added.
Launching the public consultation process in the territory’s legislature, Chief Secretary Carrie Lam said that the government respected freedom of expression but that it would be “futile and impractical” to ask for constitutional reform beyond the decisions of the Communist Party.
“If people ignore legal and political realities or even resort to disrupting public peace and undermining other people’s rights, the so-called ‘pursuit of the ideal’ or ‘fight to justice’ is just empty talk,” she said.
On Wednesday, pro-democracy lawmakers reacted to Lam’s statement by unfurling yellow umbrellas — the symbol of the protest movement — and walking out of the legislature.
After the two-month public consultation process, the government plans to submit its proposals for political reform to the Hong Kong legislature. But pro-democracy legislators vow to block any proposals that do not offer “genuine democracy,” setting the stage for another possible showdown.
If legislators fail to agree on a reform package, the next chief executive would be chosen in the same way as the current leader, Leung Chun-ying — voted in by a 1,200-strong election committee stacked with Beijing loyalists.
Kris Cheng Lok-chit in Hong Kong contributed to this report.