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Hong Kong’s democracy in peril as China clamps down

China’s top legislative body on Sunday struck a blow to democracy advocates in Hong Kong, ruling that Beijing can effectively veto candidates it deems undesirable from seeking the region’s top leadership job in a 2017 election.

The move, while hardly unexpected, makes it virtually certain that Hong Kong will soon be home to large-scale protests and acts of civil disobedience that will disrupt one of China’s crucial hubs for trade and banking.

“The democrats will simply have to go to the streets now,” said Michael Davis, a law professor at the University of Hong Kong. Beijing’s leaders, he said are “offering the kind of democracy where they get to vet the candidates, and that is unacceptable to a lot of people here.”

Since it was reunited with China in 1997, Hong Kong has enjoyed a semi-autonomous status, with freedoms of assembly and speech that residents on the mainland can only dream about. But China’s recent actions towards the former British colony has alarmed many Hong Kongers that they may soon lose rights they took for granted.

At issue is Beijing’s interpretation of Hong Kong’s “basic law,” a type of constitution that resulted from Great Britain’s decision to return the territory to China in 1984. The basic law includes language granting Hong Kong a “high degree” of autonomy, including the ability of residents to elect their chief executive in 2017.

How that election will be conducted is now in dispute. Activists in Hong Kong want groups and political parties in Hong Kong to be free to nominate their own candidates. Beijing officials and state media have said for months that will lead to chaos and is in violation of basic law.

On Sunday, the National People’s Congress affirmed that position, meaning that a Hong Kong committee seen as beholden to Beijing will decide which two or three candidates can vie for Hong Kong’s top office. The nominating rules released Sunday require that candidates both “love the country (China)” and “love Hong Kong.”

On Sunday, one of the group’s pushing for open elections, Occupy Central, issued a statement saying it was disappointed Beijing had chosen to cut off avenues for discussion. The group says in the next few weeks it will be forced to launch “wave after wave” of demonstrations. Some of the group’s critics fear such protests could shut down the city’s central business district, and possibly give Beijing a reason to directly intervene.

Davis doubts it will come to that. “Hong Kong has a long history of peaceful protests,” he said.

On Sunday night, a youth group called Scholarism held a demonstration in Hong Kong without serious incident. “Thanks to #HongKong police for showing restraint and common sense in policing,” OccupyCentral tweeted afterward.

Beijing’s handling of Hong Kong’s future has garnered interest from China watchers worldwide, many looking for signs that Beijing might be willing to experiment with limited democratic reforms in a small corner of its territory. Those hopes seemed dashed now under Chinese President Xi Jinping, who has detained and arrested numerous lawyers and political activists on the mainland who have advocated for reform.

Under the rules approved Sunday by Beijing, candidates for chief executive must gain the support of more than half of the members on Hong Kong nominating committee to be considered for the next round. Since that nominating committee is dominated by pro-business Beijing supporters, the rule makes it nearly certain Hong Kong’s democratic wing will be unable to get one of its candidates on the ballot.

Democrats, however, hold 27 seats on the 70-member Legislative Council, which must approve the NPC’s elections rules by a two-thirds majority for them to become law. While Hong Kong’s Democratic Party has vowed to hold together and veto Beijing’s proposal, doing so might sinks hopes for an election in 2017, and expose the democrats to potential blame.

Last week, as the NPC committee was meeting, Hong Kong authorities raided the home of a media titan who has used his wealth to support pro-democracy forces. Jimmy Lai, the owner of Apple Daily and other media in Hong Kong, has accused the government of seeking to intimidate and silence his newspapers and other critics.

McClatchy Special Correspondent Tiantian Zhang contributed to this report.