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Pro-democracy lawmakers hold up a banner and signs during a protest as Li Fei (seen on screen), deputy general secretary of the National People's Congress (NPC) standing committee, speaks during a briefing session in Hong Kong September 1, 2014. 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 banner reads "Protest against the lost of credit on central government. It's shameful on the deprivation of democracy." The signs read, "shameful". REUTERS/Bobby Yip (CHINA - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY)BOBBY YIP/Reuters

Prior to the 1997 handover, China promised Hong Kong (and the world) "one country, two systems." The message now from Beijing? One country, moving towards one system – and it's not the Hong Kong model.

The election by universal suffrage of the chief executive of "the special administrative region" has long been promised. But China's National People's Congress, after dragging its feet, has moved ahead on a plan to control who gets to run in 2017.

Voters will choose the new chief – but Beijing will choose a very short list of candidates. A nominating committee of 1,200 people selected in Beijing will put forward two or three names – think of them as two or three peas in a Beijing-subservient pod.

Or as the long-time democratic activist Martin Lee puts it, "What's the difference between a rotten orange, a rotten apple and a rotten banana?"

Previously, approval of the candidacy by one-eighth of the nominating committee was to be enough. That would have allowed a real range of views, policies and character. Hong Kongers could have truly chosen their own leader.

Beijing's plan requires the approval of two-thirds of 70 members of the Legislative Council of Hong Kong. That may not be much of a hurdle. The council itself is only half democratically elected. The rest are chosen from "functional" business and professional associations that Beijing is able to pressure and influence.

If the council turns down this proposal, or if Beijing withdraws, there will be no election of the chief executive by universal suffrage at all. Presumably, the chief executive will still be appointed by the premier of China, as was the present incumbent, Leung Chun-ying.

Hong Kong is no democracy now, nor has it ever been. But with its rule of law and its record on corruption, it has much to offer the rest of China. The country ought to be moving toward institutions like those of Hong Kong. Unfortunately, the trend is in the opposite direction.

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