Hong Kong's leader told Beijing on Tuesday that the city's residents wanted a full election in 2017, but said the financial hub would have to abide by the restrictive framework set down by China's Communist authorities.
Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying offered no firm proposal, but said the contest would be run according to the “Basic Law,” or mini-constitution, that has governed Hong Kong since Britain returned it to Chinese rule in 1997, rather than international standards.
That document stipulates that candidates for the position of chief executive must be approved in advance by a “broadly representative” special committee. The city's pro-democracy opposition fears it will be shut out of the poll.
Hundreds of thousands marched through Hong Kong on July 1 in support of full democracy.
Leung said the principle of universal suffrage in the 2017 poll “will be an important milestone of the democratic development of Hong Kong's political system, with significant real impact and historic meaning.”
“The Hong Kong community is generally eager to see the implementation of universal suffrage for the... election in 2017,” he said in his report to the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress (NPCSC), China's parliament.
He later told a news conference that the difficulties in forging a local consensus were not to be underestimated, but said: “Hong Kong people are rational and pragmatic.”
“What is important is that if the international standards do not comply with the Basic Law and the decisions of the NPCSC we have to follow the Basic Law and the NPCSC decision,” he said.
Leung's report immediately sparked minor protests.
Three pro-democracy lawmakers were removed from the Legislative Council's chamber for unruly behavior, including one who shouted “no caged elections."
Outside, a handful of pro-democracy protesters were out-numbered by hundreds of elderly activists from pro-Beijing groups, many waving red Chinese national flags.
China stresses sovereignty
Hong Kong is governed under the principle of “one country, two systems” allowing it broad autonomy and far more freedom of speech, assembly and religion than exists on the mainland. But China has made it plain that Beijing's sovereignty cannot be questioned.
Both the United States and Britain have intensified calls to implement democratic reforms amid broader concerns about the future of Hong Kong's core freedoms and independent judiciary.
Neither has spelled out precise democratic models, stressing only that the 2017 poll must be publicly credible. Britain made no mention of democracy for Hong Kong until the dying days of 150 years of colonial rule that ended in 1997.
Leung's presentation followed a five-month consultation on democracy in the former British colony that drew nearly 125,000 public submissions.
His report also appeared to reflect a key concern of Beijing's leadership, saying that public opinion supported the notion that Hong Kong's next leader needed to be “a person who loves the country and loves Hong Kong."
The report marked one of the most significant steps yet in Hong Kong's political journey - an experiment with democracy in communist-controlled China.
It comes amid a hot political summer in Hong Kong after the mass march and an unofficial referendum last month on possible election models. Nearly 800,000 took part.
A campaign of choreographed civil disobedience threatens to paralyze Hong Kong's glitzy central financial district unless Beijing allows full democracy.
Leung's report said “mainstream opinion” was that under the Basic Law - Beijing's proposed committee to put forward candidates must retain its powers.
“Such power of nomination must not be undermined or bypassed directly or indirectly,” the report said.
Unionist and legislator Lee Cheuk-yan said the report was an attempt to “close the door” and suggested that activists might have to resort to civil disobedience and “more drastic methods.”
The Standing Committee of China's parliament is due to rule on the need for reform in August after which Hong Kong residents will be asked to comment on a range of options.
Hong Kong's legislature must then vote in any changes.