BEIJING - China insisted Sunday on the authorities' right to choose candidates for the leadership of Hong Kong, a move likely to trigger protests from democracy advocates in the former British colony.
The National People's Congress Standing Committee decided that the city's next chief executive will be elected by popular vote in 2017, but that candidates must each be backed by "more than half of all the members" of a "broadly representative nominating committee".
Activsists for democracy in the semi-autonomous Chinese city say the move means Beijing will be able to ensure a sympathetic slate of candidates and exclude opponents.
"The principle that the Chief Executive has to be a person who loves the country and loves Hong Kong must be upheld," said the text of the decision, released by the official news agency Xinhua.
A vote by universal suffrage must have "institutional safeguards" to take into account "the actual need to maintain long-term prosperity and stability of Hong Kong", it said.
The nominating committee will pick two to three candidates, it added.
Public discontent in Hong Kong is at its highest for years over perceived interference by Beijing, with the election method for the chief executive a touchstone issue.
A pro-democracy group, Occupy Central, has pledged to mobilise thousands of protesters to block the financial district if authorities refuse to allow the public to choose candidates for the poll.
"We are prepared to organise our protest actions, wave after wave," protest leader Benny Tai told reporters on Friday ahead of the decision. "In the end we will have our final act of occupying the main streets of Hong Kong in Central."
Hong Kong was handed back to China by Britain on July 1, 1997 under a "one country, two systems" agreement, which allows residents civil liberties not seen on the mainland, including free speech and the right to protest.
Since then the city's leader has been chosen by a pro-Beijing committee.
Pro-democracy protesters staged a mass march in July demanding a greater say over how Hong Kong's next leader is chosen.
This was followed in August by a march by tens of thousands of people, organised by the pro-government Alliance for Peace and Democracy, rallying to protest against the Occupy Central campaign.
An unofficial referendum organised by Occupy activists saw the majority of 800,000 people who voted supporting reform packages that would allow public nomination.
In a counter move, the Alliance for Peace and Democracy mounted its own petition, supported by pro-Beijing groups and officials, and said it collected some 1.4 million signatures.
The pro-democracy movement has been strongly criticised by Beijing and city officials as illegal, radical and potentially violent.
State-run media on the Chinese mainland stepped up a campaign against the "extreme pan-democrats" in the run up to Sunday's announcement, alleging interference by foreign countries.
Xinhua warned early Friday in a strongly worded article that the central government has "comprehensive jurisdiction" over Hong Kong and "will always be involved" in its affairs.
"China will not squeeze Hong Kong's autonomy, but anti-central government groups should cast off the illusion that Hong Kong is under full autonomy," it added.
An editorial Friday in the pro-Beijing Global Times newspaper, which often takes a nationalist stance, said: "Chinese society has drawn a judgement that it is detrimental to Hong Kong to allow an anti-Beijing person to lead the city."