Hundreds of Beijing supporters converged outside government buildings in Hong Kong on Thursday as city legislators resumed debate on a Beijing-backed electoral package that will define the Chinese-controlled city's democratic future.
The debate on the contentious blueprint for how Hong Kong chooses its next leader in 2017 began on Wednesday, with pro-democracy legislators sticking to their guns and pledging to veto what they call a "fake" democratic model.
Weeks of pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong late last year posed the biggest challenge in years for China's ruling Communist Party.
The United States said it was watching developments.
The reform proposal, laid out by the central government in Beijing last August and supported by Hong Kong's pro-Beijing leadership, would allow a direct vote for the city's next leader but only pre-screened, pro-Beijing candidates will be on the ballot.
Opponents want a genuinely democratic election in line with Beijing's promise of universal suffrage made when the territory returned to Chinese rule in 1997.
Pro-democracy protests began on Sunday, in the run-up to the debate and a vote is expected by Friday. Numerous supporters of Beijing have also taken to the streets to show their opposition to the democracy protesters.
"I'm doing this for our next generation," said one 60-year-old pro-Beijing protester, a carpenter surnamed Chan, who said he was prepared to stay as long as needed to support the reform package.
The former British territory, which returned to Chinese rule under a "one country, two systems" promise of autonomy, is on high alert ahead of the vote, with hundreds of police in and around government headquarters.
Authorities are eager to avoid a repeat of last year's protests, when tens of thousands of people took to the streets bringing parts of the city to a standstill.
The United States said Hong Kong people should be given a "meaningful choice" for their next leader.
"The U.S. has an interest in Hong Kong's continued stability and prosperity based on its high degree of autonomy under 'one country, two systems'," Alistair Baskey, a spokesman for the White House National Security Council, said in Washington.
"As we have said previously, the legitimacy of the chief executive will be greatly enhanced if the chief executive is selected through universal suffrage and if Hong Kong's residents have a meaningful choice of candidates."
A few hundred pro-China groups gathered outside government headquarters early as temperatures hovered above 30 Celsius (86 degrees Fahrenheit). Many had numbers on their T-shirts, the significance of which was not immediately clear.
Some brought folding chairs while small groups of people posed for photographs. The mood was calm.
Hardly any pro-democracy protesters were out.
Mainland Chinese media warned that a veto of the proposal could pose a threat to the financial centre.
"The fact is that if the opposition camp vetoes the reform plan, political reform will come to a standstill," the influential tabloid the Global Times, published by the Communist Party's official People's Daily, said in an editorial.
"If reckless actions continue, the Asian financial hub will be dragged into real chaos."
Rejection of the proposal would mean keeping the old system with no general vote but selection of city leader by a 1,200-member committee stacked with pro-Beijing loyalists.
"Should the vote fail to endorse the election reform package, the HKSAR government would lose credibility and we will see intensified political infighting," Raymond Yeung, senior economist at ANZ, said in a research note.
"As a result, Hong Kong's political stability and business environment will be impaired, although we do not expect any immediate impact on the financial market and HKD peg."
In the debate on Wednesday, 16 pro-democracy legislators said they would stand by their pledge to veto the package.
If the proposal is passed, democracy activists have vowed to protest, although few expect demonstrations of the scale of late last year when, at times, more than 100,000 people were on the streets.