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Hong Kong election reforms bring few surprises, could spark new protests

Hong Kong's government unveiled election reform proposals Wednesday allowing residents to vote for the city's leader for the first time, but they face stiff resistance from pro-democracy lawmakers and activists because the candidates will be selected by a pro-Beijing panel.

Candidates would be chosen by pro-Beijing panel

Pro-democracy lawmaker Ronny Tong sits with placards of yellow crosses placed after the lawmakers walk out of the legislative chamber to protest against Chief Secretary Carrie Lam who unveiled the Beijing-backed election reform package's details Wednesday. (Vincent Yu/The Associated Press)

Hong Kong's government unveiled election reform proposals Wednesday, setting the stage for possible renewed confrontation with pro-democracy activists and lawmakers opposed to Beijing-mandated restrictions on candidates for the city's top job.

The long-expected proposals could spark renewed protests by student leaders and others who occupied key streets in the city for nearly three months last year — and at times clashing violently with riot police. Nearly 1,000 people were arrested during what was called the Occupy Central protest movement that marked the city's most tumultuous period since China took control of the territory from Britain in 1997.

The proposals, which are expected to be sent to the city's legislature by June, will most likely fail to obtain the necessary two-third majority, or 47 out of 70 seats, to pass. Pro-democracy lawmakers control 27 seats, meaning four would have to switch sides for the measures to be approved — an unlikely scenario.

Outlining the reform package's details to lawmakers, Chief Secretary Carrie Lam said that under the government's proposals, the city's five million eligible voters could choose from up to three candidates in 2017.

But she said the power to select candidates would remain in the hands of a 1,200-member group of tycoons and other elites viewed as sympathetic to the mainland Chinese government. Lam said the reforms would allow for up to 10 possible candidates to be short listed by the panel, which would then winnow the number down to three candidates through a secret ballot.

That's in line with a blueprint Beijing issued on August 31 limiting the number of candidates and ruling out open nominations for them. Pro-democracy leaders have blasted the restrictions as "fake democracy."

The opposition lawmakers, most wearing yellow Xs on their shirts and some holding yellow umbrellas — a symbol of the protest movement — walked out of the legislature chamber after Lam's speech.

Speaking beforehand, the city's current leader, Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, warned pro-democracy lawmakers that this would probably be the last chance in a long time to change the system so they should seize it while they can.

"Launching political reform is not easy," said the deeply unpopular Leung, who under the current system was hand-picked for the job by the elite panel. "If it's vetoed this time, I believe it will be a number of years before we can launch it again."

Joshua Wong, the teenage student leader who became the protest movement's most famous face, dismissed the reform package.

"Those minor adjustments raised by the government are totally useless," said the 18-year-old Wong. "We hope to have the freedom to choose rather than just get the right to elect some of the candidates."

He said that he and other members of his Scholarism group would protest on Saturday in neighbourhoods where Lam and other government officials are expected to canvas for support from residents.

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