By James Pomfret
HONG KONG (Reuters) - China moved on Wednesday to limit 2017 elections for Hong Kong's leader to a handful of candidates loyal to Beijing, local media reported, a move likely to escalate plans by pro-democracy activists to blockade the city's Central business district.
Hong Kong, which returned to Chinese rule from British colonial administration in 1997, has been deeply polarized and hit by protests over how its next leader is chosen in 2017 – by universal suffrage, as the democrats would like, or from a list of pro-Beijing candidates.
The decision to allow only two to three candidates to run in the 2017 election and not to allow open nominations was carried in a draft resolution published during a National People's Congress (NPC) meeting in Beijing, Hong Kong's RTHK radio reported, citing an unnamed source.
While the document said Beijing still backed a direct election for Hong Kong in 2017, it would insist that all candidates needed to first get majority backing from a small nomination committee stacked with Beijing loyalists.
The high nomination threshold will effectively make it impossible for opposition democrats to get on the ballot, and is likely to prove a final trigger for the Occupy Central protests.
Beijing's Communist leaders are unnerved by the possibility of an opposition democrat being voted into office and have often said any Hong Kong leader must "love China" and be a "patriot".
Ma Fung-kwok, a National People's Congress member at the meeting, declined to confirm key details, but said a 50 percent threshold for nominations from the committee was "reasonable".
"I can't disclose details right now," he told Reuters by telephone, saying a formal announcement would come on Sunday.
The relatively hardline stance by Beijing, while not unexpected, seems now likely to stir pro-democracy activists to step up preparations for their Occupy Central civil disobedience movement to demand what it considers a real, not "fake" election in line with international standards.
Benny Tai, one of the organizers of Occupy Central, warned that if Beijing placed unreasonable demands on nominations, they would launch a "full-scale, wave after wave," campaign. He declined to say, however, when this might happen given the risk of arrest for conspiring to organize an unauthorized assembly.
While China has promised to allow a direct vote for Hong Kong's leader in 2017, this is the first time China's parliament, which has the final say on Hong Kong's democratic reforms, has laid out specifics on electoral arrangements for this poll.
Chinese and Hong Kong officials have branded the Occupy movement an illegal one that would damage Hong Kong's interests.
Zhang Dejiang, the head of China's parliament and one of China's seven most powerful men on the Politburo Standing Committee suggested China wouldn't back down.
"There may be some difficulties, but the country is prepared for them and the Central Government is mentally prepared for this," said Ng Chau-pei, a Hong Kong NPC delegate, quoting Zhang after a group meeting with him in Beijing.
While it remains unclear how many people will join the Occupy movement, organizers say they expect at least three to ten thousand core supporters and it could begin anytime in September.
Hong Kong's 28,000 strong police force have been carrying out mass crowd control drills and are likely to clamp down swiftly to minimize any business disruptions.
(Reporting by James Pomfret)