• Reuters

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China moved on Wednesday to limit 2017 elections for Hong Kong’s leader to a handful of candidates loyal to Beijing, local media reported, a move that is likely to escalate plans by pro-democracy activists to blockade the city’s Central business district.

Hong Kong, which returned to Chinese rule from British colonial administration in 1997, has been deeply polarized and hit by protests over how its next leader is chosen in 2017 — by universal suffrage, as the democrats would like, or from a list of pro-Beijing candidates.

The decision to allow only two to three candidates to run in the 2017 election and not to allow open nominations was carried in a draft resolution that was published during a meeting of the National People’s Congress (NPC) in Beijing, Hong Kong’s RTHK radio reported, citing an unnamed source.

While the document said Beijing still backs a direct election for Hong Kong in 2017, it would insist that all candidates needs to first get majority backing from a small nomination committee that is stacked with Beijing loyalists.

The high nomination threshold will effectively make it impossible for opposition democrats to get on the ballot, and this is likely to prove a final trigger for the Occupy Central protests.

Beijing’s Communist leaders are unnerved by the possibility of an opposition democrat being voted into office and have often said any Hong Kong leader must “love China” and be a “patriot.”

Ma Fung-kwok, a National People’s Congress member at the meeting, declined to confirm key details but said a 50 percent threshold for nominations from the committee was “reasonable.”

“I can’t disclose details right now,” he told reporters by telephone, saying a formal announcement would come on Sunday.

The relatively hard-line stance by Beijing, while not unexpected, seems now likely to stir pro-democracy activists to step up preparations for their Occupy Central civil disobedience movement to demand what it considers a real, rather than “fake” election in line with international standards.

Benny Tai, one of the organizers of Occupy Central, warned that if Beijing places unreasonable demands on nominations, they will launch a “full-scale, wave-after-wave” campaign. He declined to say, however, when this might happen, given the risk of arrest for conspiring to organize an unauthorized assembly.

While China has promised to allow a direct vote for Hong Kong’s leader in 2017, this is the first time China’s parliament, which has the final say on Hong Kong’s democratic reforms, has laid out specifics on electoral arrangements for this poll.

Chinese and Hong Kong officials have branded the Occupy movement illegal and said it would damage Hong Kong’s interests.

Zhang Dejiang, the head of China’s parliament and one of China’s seven most powerful men on the Politburo Standing Committee, suggested China wouldn’t back down.

While it remains unclear how many people will join the Occupy movement, organizers say they expect at least 3,000 to 10,000 core supporters, and it could begin anytime in September.

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