China indicates it will not budge on nominating candidates for territory elections
Pro-democracy groups said 510,000 people attended rallies on Tuesday, with police putting the figure at 92,000 people
Chinese authorities indicated they would not listen to calls for greater democracy in Hong Kong after an estimated half a million protesters joined the largest rally in the territory in a decade.
A statement from Beijing said it was unlikely to adopt a system allowing Hong Kong citizens to nominate and vote for candidates to rule when reforms begin in 2017, a key demand of pro-democracy groups.
“Forge consensus in a rational and pragmatic manner,” it added in a direct call to demonstrators.
More than 500 people were arrested on Tuesday, the 17th anniversary of Britain’s handover of Hong Kong to China, with police finally breaking up protests at 3am.
About 1,200 people continued with an overnight sit-in outside the chief executive’s office in what they called a “rehearsal of Occupy Central”, a reference to further mass protests that democracy groups have threatened for later this month if Beijing fails to go further with reforms.
Pro-democracy organizations ran an unofficial referendum ending on Sunday in which 88 percent of nearly 800,000 voters backed a proposal which said Hong Kong citizens should be able to nominate candidates.
The Chinese government labeled last week's unofficial referendum “a farce” calling the process “illegal and invalid”. It has agreed to allow the territory’s electorate to vote for their choice from 2017 – currently a 1,200 pro-Beijing committee decides – but has insisted that authorities nominate the candidates to choose from.
State newspapers in China defended Beijing’s stance on Wednesday. The English-language daily Global Times noted in an editorial that the July 1 protest on the anniversary of the 1997 handover had become a tradition. But it added that Beijing's strategy should be to not “take it too seriously, and to handle illegal acts according to the law”.
China’s other main English-language state-run newspaper, the China Daily, said the protests were proof “citizens have continued to enjoy rights and freedoms since the handover”. But dissidents were "trying to hijack political reform with regards to the process for electing the chief executive" and had "resorted to unlawful activities" to pursue their aim, it said on Wednesday, in a reference to the recent unofficial referendum.
Police continued to detain all but 30 of the 511 people arrested on Tuesday including three members of the Catholic Justice and Peace Commission of Hong Kong diocese.
The recent referendum and protests were sparked by a June 10 government white paper released by Beijing which claimed total control over Hong Kong. Pro-democracy groups accused the Communist Party of breaking a promise of 50 years of autonomy following the 1997 handover.
“Hong Kong society and Beijing are now at a crucial crossroads. People are not only fighting for a democratic political system, they fear the core universal values that they cherish are being eliminated,” said Joseph Cheng Yu-shek, chair professor of political science at the City University of Hong Kong. “If Beijing does not respond to people’s aspirations, we can expect Hong Kong society will become more and more divided with more confrontations appearing.”
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