Activists protest ahead of vote on electoral reforms

A pro-democracy protester during a march to demand lawmakers reject a Beijing-vetted electoral reform package in Hong Kong, yesterday. [PHOTO: REUTERS]

Thousands of people took to the streets of Hong Kong to protest against electoral reforms approved by Beijing to choose the city’s next leader, the beginning of several days of demonstrations before the reforms go to a vote.

Beijing has proposed a direct vote for Hong Kong’s next leader in 2017, but only pre-screened, pro-Beijing candidates would be allowed to stand.

Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protesters say that makes a mockery of China’s pledge to eventually grant universal suffrage in the territory.

Protesters, some wearing yellow shirts and carrying yellow umbrellas, symbols of their pro-democracy movement, marched from Victoria Park in the bustling shopping district of Causeway Bay to government headquarters.

“We want to say ‘no’ to the government’s proposal,” said student Cleo Chui, 21.

“This is not what Hong Kong people want. The election committee does not represent the voice of Hong Kong - it’s pre-screened. That’s not real universal suffrage.”

Pro-democracy activists demanding free elections staged sit-ins late last year, paralysing parts of the financial hub for weeks to press their demand for free elections.

Daisy Chan of Civil Human Rights Front, which organised yesterday’s march, said it was the last chance to fight for democracy.

Hong Kong’s legislature is due to begin debate on the package on Wednesday with a vote due by the end of the week.

Supporters of the Chinese government, some waving the Chinese flag, dotted the demonstration route. The two sides shouted insults at each other as scores of police stood by.

There was no violence.

Hong Kong reverted from British to Chinese rule in 1997, under a “one country, two systems” formula that gives it substantial autonomy and freedoms, with universal suffrage promised as an “ultimate goal”.

But Beijing fears Hong Kong’s aspirations for full democracy spilling over into the mainland.

The number of protesters was less than the 50,000 organisers had hoped for on a sweltering, humid day.

At least 5,000 officers would be on duty when the vote takes place, senior police sources have told Reuters, adding that the demonstrations could be much bigger and more angry if the package is passed.

Senior Chinese officials have privately expressed confidence that Hong Kong will adopt the package.