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Hong Kong braces for big democracy rally opposing China’s limits on vote

People queue up at a polling station on the last day to vote for an unofficial referendum on democratic reform in Hong Kong on June 29, 2014.

KIN CHEUNG/ASSOCIATED PRESS

An annual protest march in Hong Kong is expected to draw three times as many people as usual, angered by Beijing's insistence on limiting residents' say in picking the southern Chinese financial hub's next leader.

Organizers expect at least 150,000 people to take to the streets Tuesday to show their support for democratic reform and oppose Beijing's desire to have the final word on candidates for the chief executive's job.

The rally comes days after nearly 800,000 people voted in an unofficial referendum aimed at bolstering support for universal suffrage.

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The standoff over Hong Kong's electoral reform has sent political tensions soaring and alarmed Beijing, which denounced the poll as illegal. An editorial Monday in China's state-run nationalist newspaper Global Times, known for its bombastic rhetoric, warned Hong Kongers to stay away from the July 1 demonstration – an annual fixture for more than a decade.

"Hong Kong's radical opposition forces are trying with all means to build a war chariot and get as many Hong Kong citizens as possible onto this chariot by deception. Its crashing target is the central government and all the people of the country," the newspaper said, urging residents "not to board this war chariot."

The protest falls on a public holiday marking Hong Kong's return to mainland China's control on July 1, 1997, after more than a century of British rule. It has traditionally been an occasion for residents to air complaints over a range of grievances, but this year a central theme is unhappiness over stunted democratic development.

Beijing has pledged that in 2017 Hong Kongers will be able to elect their leader but insists candidates must be vetted by a Beijing-friendly committee like the one that until now has handpicked all postcolonial leaders. The central government sparked a huge backlash when it released a policy statement earlier this month stating that Hong Kong's autonomy is subject to Beijing's authorization and the leader must be patriotic to China, adding to unease about the mainland's growing influence.

"Hong Kong people are ready for true democracy without any prescreening, that's the key message" of the rally, said Edward Chin, leader of a group of banking and finance workers backing the Occupy Central with Love and Peace movement, which organized the unofficial democracy referendum. "This is a strong signal to Beijing that Hong Kong people can express their views in a nonviolent way."

To pressure authorities on democratic reform, Occupy Central plans to freeze the city's financial district with a sit-in involving at least 10,000 people. That has worried the corporate community. The world's four top auditing firms – KPMG, Deloitte, PwC and Ernst & Young – took out a newspaper ad Friday warning that the plan would drive businesses away from the Asian financial hub. But some employees fired back Monday with an ad of their own saying the statement "doesn't represent our stance." It was signed: "A group of Big Four employees who love Hong Kong."

Increasing polarization has also unsettled Asia's richest person, Li Ka-shing, who said in a speech Friday to university graduates that worries about "widening inequality in wealth and opportunities" and "welfare dependence" have left him "sleepless in Hong Kong."

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