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BEIJING – China's top legislative body approved a tightly controlled framework for the 2017 election of Hong Kong's leader Sunday, possibly paving the way for civil unrest that has plagued the country under Chinese rule.

The former British colony on the south China coast was returned to the mainland in 1997 under a "one country, two systems" arrangement where it kept many civil liberties that remain unthinkable in the rest of China. But Beijing retains ultimate power and chooses Hong Kong's leader, called the Chief Executive, through a pro-Beijing committee.

Democratic activists have led a vigorous campaign — including mass protests — to demand an open choice of candidates at the 2017 election. But on Sunday, Beijing announced its widely expected decision to permit only two to three candidates.

The chief executive hopefuls can enter the ballot after obtaining over 50% support of a committee of 1,200 people that are likely to be highly loyal to Beijing, rather than representative of the territory's 7.2 million population.

The Standing Committee of the National People's Congress, China's rubber-stamp parliament, said in its decision that universal suffrage — the right to vote — at the 2017 election will represent "historic progress" for Hong Kong. It justified its method of selecting the Chief Executive by insisting that these "institutional safeguards" are necessary for Hong Kong's "long-term prosperity and stability," and to uphold the whole country's "sovereignty, security and development interests."

Hong Kong's democrats quickly reacted with disappointment. They threatened more civil disobedience, mostly in the form of occupying and shutting down the central business district.

The NPC decision "leaves no room for us to fight for a genuinely democratic system, and we will begin our campaign for peaceful, non-violent struggle," said Joseph Cheng, the convener of the Alliance for True Democracy, a coalition of groups advocating universal suffrage in Hong Kong.

"We want to tell the world we haven't given up. We will continue to fight," said Cheng, according to Reuters.

"The road of dialogue has come to the end," said Benny Tai, co-founder of Occupy Central with Love and Peace, the most high-profile protest group pushing for electoral reforms. Occupy Central will mobilize a long-term campaign fighting for democracy, said Tai, according to the South China Morning Post, a Hong Kong-based newspaper.

"It is kind of the worst case scenario for democrats in Hong Kong," said Michael Davis, a constitutional law expert at the University of Hong Kong. "The decision just totally embraces the current election committee for selecting candidates. The writing is very clearly on the wall: the government will not be genuinely expanding the constituency of the committee."

Beijing has insisted on candidate vetting of such a level that "it is almost dishonest to claim this model is universal suffrage," David said.

In China, officials defended Beijing's hard line. Openly nominating candidates would create a "chaotic society", the deputy secretary general of the NPC's Standing Committee, Li Fei, told a news conference Sunday.

"These rights come from laws, they don't come from the sky," the Associated Press quoted him as saying. "Many Hong Kong people have wasted a lot of time discussing things that are not appropriate and aren't discussing things that are appropriate."

Authorities in China, where the Communist Party has ruled since 1949, unopposed and unelected, have successfully persuaded many citizens that major political reform would only bring chaos and economic disaster.

"It challenges their very political nature to allow a free and open society to function," Davis said. China remains "a political system that wants to control everything. This wild and wooly Hong Kong is not something that their instincts favor."

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