BEIJING — China's legislature on Sunday ruled out allowing open nominations in the inaugural election for Hong Kong's leader, saying they would create a "chaotic society." Democracy activists in the Asian financial hub responded by saying that a long-threatened mass occupation of the heart of the city "will definitely happen."
In setting tight limits on how far electoral reforms can go in Hong Kong, Beijing issued its firmest reminder yet that it's still in charge despite the substantial autonomy it promised the city after taking control from Britain in 1997.
The guidelines laid down by China's communist leaders ratchet up the potential for a showdown pitting Beijing against Hong Kong democracy supporters, a group that represents a broad swath of society, including students, religious leaders and financial workers.
The decision by the legislature's powerful Standing Committee sharpens fears that China wants to screen candidates for loyalty to the central government and is reneging on its promise to let Hong Kong's leader be directly elected by voters, rather than the current committee of mostly pro-Beijing tycoons.
"At this very moment, the path of dialogue has been exhausted," said Benny Tai, a leader of the Occupy Central with Love and Peace protest movement, which has vowed to rally at least 10,000 people to paralyze Hong Kong's financial district — known as Central — to press demands for genuine democracy.
The group will launch "wave after wave of protest action" in the coming weeks "until we get to a point when we launch the all-out Occupy Central action," Tai told reporters. University students are also planning to boycott classes next month.
Thousands of people gathered in a park across from Hong Kong government headquarters Sunday evening to protest the widely expected announcement, chanting slogans and waving their cellphones.
Earlier in the day, Li Fei, deputy secretary general of the National People's Congress' Standing Committee, told a news conference in Beijing that openly nominating candidates would create a "chaotic society."
Under the legislature's guidelines, a maximum of three candidates, each approved by more than half of a 1,200-member nominating committee, will be put forth to Hong Kong's 5 million eligible voters in 2017. The public will have no say in choosing candidates, raising fears of what some have termed "fake democracy."
"These rights come from laws, they don't come from the sky," Li said. "Many Hong Kong people have wasted a lot of time discussing things that are not appropriate and aren't discussing things that are appropriate."
Making clear that Chinese leaders intend to tightly control politics in Hong Kong, Li emphasized that candidates for the city's chief executive should be loyal to China's ruling Communist Party.
"He has to be responsible to Hong Kong and to the central government," Li said. "If Hong Kong's chief executive doesn't love the country and love the party, then that can't work in one country."
Under the principle of "one country, two systems," Hong Kong is granted a high degree of control over its own affairs and civil liberties unseen on the mainland.
Occupy Central said the plan to block the Central financial district was "the last resort, an action to be taken only if all chances of dialogue have been exhausted and there is no other choice." It said that "the occupation of Central will definitely happen," without specifying a date.
Hong Kong's government still needs to hold more consultations on Beijing's guidelines and then formulate a bill that has to be passed by a two-thirds majority in the city's legislature. Occupy Central urged legislators, who hold just over a third of seats, to vote against it and "start the constitutional reform process all over again."
But the city's current leader, Leung Chun-ying, warned that if the proposal is blocked, it would fall to the nomination committee to pick a leader, and the city "would be deprived of the voting right that they would otherwise be entitled."
"The decision on the nomination committee is very hypocritical," said Christine Chu, who joined the pro-democracy rally Sunday night. "This is not true universal suffrage, so we cannot accept this result. We will do whatever we can to fight for what we want."
Willy Lam, an expert on Chinese politics at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said that the requirement that a candidate is supported by more than half of the nomination committee will rule out candidates from the "pan-democratic" parties.
"Only if it's lowered to 20 percent can a pan-democratic candidate get in," as there could be enough political diversity in the committee to back a more democratically minded person, Lam said.
Beijing's announcement comes after a summer of protests and counter-protests that have gripped Hong Kong, including a rally two weeks ago by pro-Beijing activists to denounce Occupy Central as threatening the city's stability.
Political tensions spiked in June when Chinese officials released a policy "white paper" declaring that Hong Kong's "high degree of autonomy ... comes solely from the authorization by the central leadership."
Many read the policy paper as asserting Beijing's dominance of Hong Kong's affairs and hit the streets and the Internet in protest. Occupy Central drew Beijing's rebuke by organizing an online referendum to bolster support for full democracy that received nearly 800,000 votes.
Also Sunday, the incumbent leader of the nearby Chinese-controlled casino capital of Macau, Fernando Chui, was elected to a second five-year term by a Beijing-friendly committee even though 95 percent of 8,688 votes cast in a similar referendum were in favor of universal suffrage in 2019.
Chan reported from Hong Kong. Associated Press writer Louise Watt in Beijing contributed to this report.