HONG KONG -- Hundreds of protesters gathered outside the Hong Kong legislature Wednesday, putting police on high alert as lawmakers debated a reform bill that will dictate the direction of the semiautonomous Chinese region's political development.
The bill, backed by the Hong Kong government and the central authorities in Beijing, would let citizens directly elect the city's chief executive for the first time in 2017. The only candidates permitted to stand, however, would be screened by a pro-Beijing electoral committee -- and that's the key point for opponents of the bill.
Demonstrators both supporting and opposing the legislation faced off in a protest area beside the city's Legislative Council (LegCo) complex. People from both camps exchanged harsh words across barricades, under the watchful eye of scores of police officers.
Inside the chamber, the city's chief secretary, Carrie Lam, urged the legislature to pass the reform package. “The majority of Hong Kong people would like to see their right to vote being put in place in 2017 so that there will be development of political reform, instead of a stalemate,” she said, the South China Morning Post reported.
The bill is expected to be voted down, with a bloc of 27 pro-democracy legislators, and one pro-establishment lawmaker deciding to oppose it -- enough to deny the government the majority it needs.
“We hope that the package will be voted down; it is not real democracy,” said Kelly Cho, 19, a pro-democracy protester who sat in one of the dozens of tents decorated with yellow flags and umbrellas -- a symbolic throwback to last year's pro-democracy Umbrella Movement -- which lined the sidewalks surrounding LegCo.
“I don't think the [bill] is the change we need in Hong Kong. It is turning the clock back on democracy,” said her friend, Remmy Lo, 22. “I just want to vote in peace. You can see both sides arguing over there, and it is not good.”
A pro-Beijing supporter by the surname Chan told Reuters: "The bill needs to go through. We have to support Hong Kong stability. We cannot keep carrying on like this."
With passions on both sides inflamed, the LegCo issued an “amber alert” to heighten security in the complex. Two hundred officers were reportedly stationed inside the building, with 1,000 patrolling the streets outside.
Tensions have been running high in the city after police arrested 10 people Monday over an alleged bomb plot. Authorities say those arrested had a history of involvement in anti-government protests, while protesters speculated that the plot was manufactured to smear their cause.
Police media-liaison officers walked through the crowd of demonstrators, warning journalists and photographers that authorities were prepared to take action quickly in the event of violence.
Law enforcement has made much of its preparations for the protests, with local media reports in recent weeks saying more than 7,000 officers -- some equipped with riot gear, rubber bullets and pepper spray -- will be on hand to respond to any disturbances.
The latest round of protests, however, pales in comparison to those that took place last year. The number of demonstrators from both sides outside LegCo Wednesday numbered in the hundreds, compared to tens of thousands last year; a major pro-democracy march earlier this week reportedly attracted only 3,500 people.
A vote on the bill is expected either Thursday or Friday this week.