HONG KONG - Pro-democracy activists vowed on Sunday to bring Hong Kong's financial hub to a standstill after China's parliament rejected their demands for the right to freely choose the former British colony's next leader in 2017.
The Standing Committee of the National People's Congress (NPC) endorsed a framework to let only two or three candidates run in the 2017 leadership vote. All candidates must first obtain majority backing from a nominating committee likely to be stacked with Beijing loyalists.
The relatively tough decision by the NPC - China's final arbiter on the city's democratic affairs - makes it almost impossible for opposition democrats to get on the ballot.
"This is a legal, fair and reasonable decision. It is a dignified, prudent decision, and its legal effect is beyond doubt," Li Fei, deputy secretary general of the NPC standing committee, told reporters after the decision.
Hundreds of "Occupy Central" activists, who demand Beijing allow a real, free election, prepared to stage a small protest late on Sunday to formally launch a campaign of civil disobedience that will climax with a blockade at some time of the city's important Central business district.
"Today is not only the darkest day in the history of Hong Kong's democratic development, today is also the darkest day of one country, two systems," said Benny Tai, a law professor and one of Occupy Central's main leaders, referring to the formula under which capitalist Hong Kong, with a population of around 7.2 million, was returned to Communist Chinese rule in 1997.
The Occupy movement said in a statement that "all chances of dialogue have been exhausted and the occupation of Central will definitely happen." It gave no timeframe for its action.
A spokesman for Hong Kong Exchanges and Clearing, which operates the Hong Kong Stock Exchange, said contingency planning was taken very seriously.
"We have long had a specialist team that coordinates group response plans for scenarios that put at risk the continuing operation of the exchange or threaten the well-being or safety of our staff."
Hong Kong's current chief executive Leung Chun-ying said Beijing's decision represented a major step forward in Hong Kong's development.
"Universal suffrage for the (chief executive) election through "one person, one vote" by Hong Kong people is not only a big step forward for Hong Kong, but also a historic milestone for our country," he said, adding people should express their opinion through peaceful and legal methods.
Political reform has been a constant source of friction between Hong Kong's pro-democracy movement and the mainland since Britain returned the city to China 17 years ago.
In nearby Macau, another special administrative region, leader and sole candidate Fernando Chui was "re-elected" on Sunday by a select panel of 400 largely pro-China loyalists in the tiny but wealthy former Portuguese colony.