HONG KONG (Reuters) - Masked pro-Beijiing activists scuffled with Hong Kong democracy protesters on Tuesday with one demonstrator taken to hospital as tensions grow ahead of a mass protest to push China to allow full democracy in the former British colony.
China's parliament last month said it would tightly control the nomination of candidates for a landmark election in Hong Kong in 2017, a move that Hong Kong's so-called "Occupy Central" activists said would trigger a mass sit-in of the city's Central business district in protest.
Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule in 1997 with wide-ranging autonomy and freedoms not enjoyed on the mainland under a policy of "one country, two systems". The pro-democracy activists want universal suffrage, but Communist Party rulers in Beijing say any candidate for the territory's chief executive has to be screened first.
The scuffles took place during a ceremony in which the three main organizers of the Occupy campaign shaved their heads to symbolize being pushed to the brink by Beijing, and to express their determination to keep fighting for a genuinely democratic vote for Hong Kong's next leader in 2017.
A group of around five people, wearing caps, medical masks and sunglasses charged into the hall and chanted slogans denouncing the movement. Scuffles broke out and one Occupy supporter was stretchered off to hospital.
Police arrested at least one person.
Benny Tai, one of the three main organizers of the Occupy movement, said it was natural for people to have different opinions but it was "important for people to express their views in a peaceful manner."
The scuffle, though small, was another sign of rising social tensions in the financial hub that has been hit by protests and counter-protests in a battle over democratic development.
Tai declined to give a specific date for the protest to shut down the city's main financial district of Central. In the lead-up to the Occupy action, the movement plans to carry out other activities including a mass boycott of university classes.
Hong Kong's leader appealed to democrats to accept China's decision and back down from the mass protests.
"I understand and respect the sincerity of most pan-democratic lawmakers in arguing strongly for their preferred reform model," Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying wrote in the Financial Times. "But I hope that they also embrace this opportunity for 2017. Too much is at stake to walk away."
(Reporting by Stefanie McIntyre, Diana Chan and Kinling Lo; Writing by James Pomfret; Editing by Nick Macfie)