— The debate over election reform in Hong Kong is driving a wedge between Beijing and the vibrant port city, where pro-democracy activists are gearing up for an unofficial referendum this weekend. Activists say they are trying to persuade the city government to draft a democratic ballot law for elections in 2017 and 2020, and have pledged to occupy the city center if their demands go unheard.
Occupy Central, the group behind this weekend's referendum, has been mobilizing supporters around Hong Kong by hosting a series of walks in all of the city's districts. They say the referendum is a way for people in Hong Kong to express their preference over elections, which Beijing has promised Hong Kong in 2017 and 2020.
For months, the topic has engulfed the attention of Hong Kong politicians as well as public opinion, divided over the role Beijing should play in selecting candidates for top office.
Beijing says a small committee will pick those who can run for office, a move some in Hong Kong see as a political interference.
Earlier this week, the websites of Occupy Central and of a media group that has sided with the movement were hit with massive cyber-attacks.
The origin of the hack was unconfirmed, but Occupy Central supporter Tracy Choi attributes it to mainland authorities.
“The hacking. The whole purpose of that is to make sure that people don't come out, people get frightened. But in fact I think it's gone the opposite way, because people think, this is the last time, the last time we have to come out and to say something, to decide our future,” she said.
In a white paper about Hong Kong
issued this week, China stated that every autonomy Hong Kong enjoys depends on authorization given by Beijing.
The wording inflamed many pro-democracy activists, who say Beijing intends to limit well-established freedoms guaranteed by the city's constitution, or Basic Law.
“The white paper is not an official document that can override the basic law, Hong Kong's mini constitution. We still believe that the basic law articles have allowed us all kinds of freedoms," said James Hon, a retired teacher and spokesman for the League in Defense of Hong Kong Freedom.
At the time of the Sino-British agreement, when the two countries decided Hong Kong would go back to being part of China, Beijing promised the city a high degree of autonomy for 50 years in all matters other than defense and foreign policy.
“One of the ideas then was that China would become more open, so that after 50 years there would not be that much difference between the economy and society in the mainland and in Hong Kong. But in fact, we see now that was a very optimistic idea,” said Teng Biao, a human rights lawyer and visiting scholar at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
Frictions over electoral reform are bound to heat up again in July, when Occupy Central says it will occupy downtown Hong Kong should the government select an undemocratic ballot system.