Can China's leaders ignore Hong Kong's biggest protest in a decade?

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Activists in Hong Kong are demanding greater democratic rights. Photo: ITV News

Hong Kong is anticipating its largest protest in a decade as the city prepares to host the annual July 1st pro-democracy demonstrations. It marks the anniversary of the former British colony reverting to Chinese rule.

Some 500,000 people are expected to turn out today due to growing feelings that Beijing is tightening its grip on Hong Kong. The disquiet has sparked a civil disobedience group, Occupy Central, which says it will hold an overnight vigil in the city’s Central area - its business district - from tonight until 8am tomorrow.

The theme of the march this year is "universal suffrage".

It’s a non-violent, peaceful plan, yet mass protests here can paralyse the city. Police have appointed 4,000 officers to patrol it and have designated a police college as a potential detention centre, should more than 100 people be arrested. They are taking no chances.

Around half a million people could turn out for today's march. Credit: ITV News

There were promises, 17 years ago, to allow this hub of capitalism greater autonomy and to exist under "one country, two systems" - the idea conceived by China's former leader Deng Xiaoping and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

It was supposed to let Hong Kong keep its free market economy and internationally respected legal system, with the exception of foreign affairs and defence, but many see this notion as fading fast.

In 2017, Hong Kong gets to elect a leader, its Chief Executive - its mayor. The people of Hong Kong want to be able to do this in a fully democratic way. They want to choose the nominees and elect from that shortlist themselves, but Beijing says it will handpick the candidates - by law.

A 1,200-strong election committee, stacked with Beijing loyalists, will endorse the appropriate nominees that the Hong Kong people can pick from. A patriotic candidate, of course, is preferable. An opposition democrat taking the city’s highest office would not be ideal.

Hong Kong will elect a leader - or Chief Executive - in three years' time. Credit: ITV News

But in the last week, an "unofficial" referendum has been taking place in which voters were asked how they would like to select their next leader.

The fact that nearly 800,000 took part, almost a quarter of the electorate in Hong Kong, showed the huge public support for completely free elections.

Beijing says that vote was illegal and the result was invalid. Chinese state television said the referendum was a farce and a folly.

President Xi Jinping looks unlikely to compromise on Hong Kong. Credit: Reuters/Jason Lee

Hong Kong's democratic experiment is to some extent a litmus test to see how tolerant Beijing could be to eventual political reform on the mainland, where there are growing calls for greater civil liberties and democracy.

But President Xi Jinping, who has quickly consolidated power since taking office 18 months ago, has adopted a hard line on domestic and foreign affairs, so he looks unlikely to compromise on Hong Kong. China does have ultimate control over it, after all.

Previous pro-democracy protests have been unnerving to China’s leaders. If today’s expected numbers are realised, surely Beijing can’t ignore it?