HONG KONG (AP) -- Hong Kong is bracing for a critical vote by lawmakers on Beijing-backed election reforms that sparked huge street protests last year, with the outcome likely to throw its political future into further uncertainty.
Lawmakers began a debate Wednesday on the government's plan to change the way the southern Chinese financial hub's top leader is chosen. The proposal faces likely defeat from the legislature's pro-democracy contingent, which has enough seats to veto it in a vote expected by the end of the week.
The government is offering direct elections for the first time starting in 2017 but wants all candidates to be screened by a 1,200-member panel of Beijing-friendly elites like the one that currently handpicks the leader.
Pro-democracy leaders say that means Beijing is breaking its promise to eventually grant genuine universal suffrage to the city, a special administrative region of China.
"It's a fake election, it doesn't increase our choices," pro-democracy lawmaker Cyd Ho told senior government officials during the debate. "Instead, you have consolidated the small circle of the privileged and then you've tried to get Hong Kong people to give you a public mandate."
Hong Kong's government needs the support of at least two-thirds of the 70 lawmakers, or 47 people, to win approval. Lawmakers from pro-democracy parties, who hold 27 seats, have vowed to reject it and brought mock ballot boxes marked with X's into the legislative chamber, signaling their intention to vote against the plan.
Chief Secretary Carrie Lam, the No. 2 government official, said in opening remarks that "having a vote in your hand is better than none."
She said Hong Kong's democratic development faces a "stalemate" if the reform plan is defeated, and the government would be forced to revert to the existing system to choose the next leader.
Under that scenario, increasingly bitter divisions in Hong Kong society that have emerged in the battle over democracy could remain unresolved.
Outside the legislature, pro-establishment demonstrators played Chinese Communist anthems while pro-democracy activists chanted "Definitely no to fake democracy."
"I know that this government proposal is a lie," said pro-democracy protester Brandy Yau. "There's no chance that we'll be able to vote for who we really want for our chief executive, so that's why we have to oppose this voting proposal."
The likely defeat follows Hong Kong's most tumultuous 12 months since Beijing took control in 1997 after a century and a half of colonial rule. Tens of thousands of people took to the streets last year to protest the central government's election screening requirement.
For 11 weeks, activists camped out on major thoroughfares in three neighborhoods to demand greater electoral freedom but eventually left the streets after exhaustion set in and Hong Kong's unpopular leader, Leung Chun-ying, refused to offer any concessions.
Beijing has stepped up last-ditch efforts to win Hong Kongers over as public support for the reform package has dwindled. In a rolling survey by a coalition of universities, the gap between those in favor of the government's plan and those against has narrowed. Results since the start of June show opinion more or less evenly split, although the latest results, from June 8-12, show a slight uptick in support among the 1,100 people surveyed. No margin of error was given.
In a front-page editorial, the Communist Party's flagship People's Daily newspaper insisted the proposed reform package is the best option for maintaining Hong Kong's stability, prosperity and rising living standards. Such editorials are generally vetted at the highest levels of the party.
"Universal suffrage must be considered within the framework of 'one country, two systems' and Hong Kong's Basic Law, in accordance with Hong Kong's current conditions," the newspaper said, referring to the mini-constitution that grants the city a high degree of control over its own affairs.
"Around the globe, there are examples of countries implementing forms of universal suffrage unsuited to their conditions, leading to social chaos, economic crisis and falling living standards."
Authorities are bracing for the possibility of violent protests as the vote nears, though that prospect may be overstated given the likelihood of a defeat for the government. Legislature officials have raised the alert level and authorized police to deploy inside the building.
A police risk assessment indicated "a likelihood of the Legislative Council complex being stormed by radical groups in the next couple of days," legislature president Jasper Tsang said Tuesday. Tensions have also risen after 10 people were arrested earlier this week on suspicion of conspiring to make explosives.