Passions run high ahead of Hong Kong debate on China-vetted democracy blueprint

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Thousands of police and protesters are expected to converge on Hong Kong's Legislative Council on Wednesday when lawmakers debate a Beijing-backed electoral reform plan that could trigger fresh pro-democracy protests in the Chinese-controlled city.

The former British colony has reinforced security after mass protests crippled parts of the Asian financial hub late last year and presented China's ruling Communist Party with one of its biggest political challenges in decades.

Police were deployed inside the council complex overnight, while some roads leading to government buildings were closed. Activist groups said they expected 100,000 protesters to show up on Wednesday, while police sources said more than 5,000 specially trained officers would be on standby.

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Passions run high ahead of Hong Kong debate on China-vetted democracy blueprint
A pro-Beijing protester, center, sprays water to a pro-democracy protester, right, during a confrontation outside the Legislative Council in Hong Kong Wednesday, June 17, 2015. Hong Kong election reform proposals that sparked massive street protests last year in the southern Chinese financial center are set to be presented to lawmakers, who will likely reject them. (AP Photo/Kin Cheung)
Pro-democracy lawmaker Charles Mok listens to the legislature debate on election reform proposals next to placards with crosses to symbolize they are against the proposals in Hong Kong Wednesday, June 17, 2015. Hong Kong election reform proposals that sparked massive street protests last year in the southern Chinese financial center are set to be presented Wednesday to lawmakers, who will likely vote them down. The yellow banner reads " I want true universal suffrage ". (AP Photo/Vincent Yu)
Pro-Beijing demonstrators display banners and placards in support of the government's controversial electoral roadmap, outside the city's legislature in Hong Kong on June 17, 2015. Hong Kong prepared for a political showdown with lawmakers set to vote on a divisive reform package and tensions high over an alleged explosives plot that police said was linked to a 'radical' group. AFP PHOTO / Philippe Lopez (Photo credit should read PHILIPPE LOPEZ/AFP/Getty Images)
People listen to speeches during a pro-democracy rally outside the government headquarters in Hong Kong on June 14, 2015. Pro-democracy campaigners took to the streets of Hong Kong on June 14, but in far smaller numbers than expected, before a vote on a political reform package that has divided the city and sparked mass protests. AFP PHOTO / DALE DE LA REY (Photo credit should read DALE de la REY/AFP/Getty Images)
Pro-democracy campaigners hold yellow umbrellas as they march against the government's controversial electoral roadmap, outside the city's legislature in Hong Kong on June 17, 2015. Hong Kong prepared for a political showdown on June 17 with lawmakers set to vote on a divisive reform package and tensions high over an alleged explosives plot that police said was linked to a 'radical' group. AFP PHOTO / Philippe Lopez (Photo credit should read PHILIPPE LOPEZ/AFP/Getty Images)
Pro-democracy campaigners display placards symbolising a vote against the government's controversial electoral roadmap, outside the city's legislature in Hong Kong on June 17, 2015. Hong Kong prepared for a political showdown on June 17 with lawmakers set to vote on a divisive reform package and tensions high over an alleged explosives plot that police said was linked to a 'radical' group. AFP PHOTO / Philippe Lopez (Photo credit should read PHILIPPE LOPEZ/AFP/Getty Images)
A pro-democracy protester holding a yellow umbrella attends a rally outside the Legislative Council in Hong Kong, Wednesday, June 17, 2015. Hong Kong election reform proposals that sparked massive street protests last year in the southern Chinese financial center are set to be presented Wednesday to lawmakers, who will likely vote them down. (AP Photo/Kin Cheung)
Pro-democracy campaigners display placards symbolising a vote against the government's controversial electoral roadmap, outside the city's legislature in Hong Kong on June 17, 2015. Hong Kong prepared for a political showdown on June 17 with lawmakers set to vote on a divisive reform package and tensions high over an alleged explosives plot that police said was linked to a 'radical' group. AFP PHOTO / Philippe Lopez (Photo credit should read PHILIPPE LOPEZ/AFP/Getty Images)
People march during a pro-democracy rally in Hong Kong on June 14, 2015. Pro-democracy campaigners took to the streets of Hong Kong on June 14, but in far smaller numbers than expected, before a vote on a political reform package that has divided the city and sparked mass protests. AFP PHOTO / DALE DE LA REY (Photo credit should read DALE de la REY/AFP/Getty Images)
Pro-democracy campaigners hold yellow umbrellas as they go down an escalator during a march against the government's controversial electoral roadmap, outside the city's legislature in Hong Kong on June 17, 2015. Hong Kong prepared for a political showdown on June 17 with lawmakers set to vote on a divisive reform package and tensions high over an alleged explosives plot that police said was linked to a 'radical' group. AFP PHOTO / Philippe Lopez (Photo credit should read PHILIPPE LOPEZ/AFP/Getty Images)
Protesters carry yellow umbrellas during a rally as people march in a downtown street to support for a veto of the government’s electoral reform package in Hong Kong, Sunday, June 14, 2015. The rally was held ahead of a crucial vote by lawmakers on Beijing-backed election reforms that sparked huge street protests last year. (AP Photo/Vincent Yu)
People march in a downtown street to support for a veto of the government’s electoral reform package in Hong Kong, Sunday, June 14, 2015. The rally was held ahead of a crucial vote by lawmakers on Beijing-backed election reforms that sparked huge street protests last year. (AP Photo/Vincent Yu)
A protester with half of his face painted as zombie in front of a mock clock divided into "rest," left, and "work," right, during a march to mark May Day in Hong Kong Friday, May 1, 2015. Hundreds of protesters from various labor unions staged a rally to demand better workers' rights and call for standard working hours. (AP Photo/Kin Cheung)
Protesters from various labor unions march to mark May Day in Hong Kong Friday, May 1, 2015. Hundreds of protesters staged a rally to demand better workers' rights and call for standard working hours. (AP Photo/Kin Cheung)
Protesters from various Labor unions and their children hold balloons in the shape of a number eight, representing the 8 working hours a day with a float of a mock clock that advises people work only one third of a day during a march to mark May Day in Hong Kong Friday, May 1, 2015. Hundreds of people staged a rally to demand better workers' rights and call for standard working hours. (AP Photo/Kin Cheung)
A protester raises a placard as people march in a downtown street to support for a veto of the government’s electoral reform package in Hong Kong, Sunday, June 14, 2015. The rally was held ahead of a crucial vote by lawmakers on Beijing-backed election reforms that sparked huge street protests last year. (AP Photo/Vincent Yu)
Pro-Beijing supporters wave Chinese and Hong Kong flags during a rally to promote the Hong Kong electoral reform in Hong Kong Saturday, April 25, 2015. Hong Kong's government unveiled the proposals that would allow residents to vote for the southern Chinese city's top leader for the first time. But the proposals include Beijing-backed restrictions facing stiff resistance from the city's pro-democracy lawmakers. (AP Photo/Kin Cheung)
Pro-democracy activists shelter from the sun under yellow umbrellas, symbols of the city's democracy movement, as they attend a pro-democracy rally against a controversial political reform package in the Tsim Sha Tsui district of Hong Kong on June 7, 2015. Pro-democracy activists on June 7 travelled around the city in a bid to gain support against a controversial political reform package which will be voted on by the city's legislature in mid-June. AFP PHOTO / ANTHONY WALLACE (Photo credit should read ANTHONY WALLACE/AFP/Getty Images)
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The council is due to start the debate at 0300 GMT (11:00 p.m.(Monday) ET), with a vote expected on Thursday or Friday.

Tension has been running high, especially after ten people were arrested this week on suspicion of explosives offences. Six people were charged on Tuesday with conspiracy to cause an explosion. China's Foreign Ministry said there were "certain people who want to use a series of damaging acts" to disturb the debate.

"We hope it can pass smoothly," ministry spokesman Lu Kang told reporters in Beijing on Tuesday. "This is beneficial for Hong Kong's long-term development."

Beijing has strived to lobby the city's 27 pro-democracy lawmakers to back the blueprint that will allow a direct vote for Hong Kong's next leader in 2017, but only from pre-screened, pro-Beijing candidates.

But these democrats, who hold a crucial one-third veto bloc in the 70-seat Legislative Council, have so far pledged to oppose what they call a "fake" democratic model.

Hong Kong's Independent Commission Against Corruption has also said it is investigating allegations by an unidentified legislator that he was offered a bribe to vote for the package.

Hong Kong returned to China in 1997 under a "one country, two systems" formula that gives it a separate legal system and greater freedoms than the party-ruled mainland - and the promise of universal suffrage.

If the council passes the vote, it could anger thousands of activists, who last year blockaded major roads across Hong Kong for 79 days, defying tear gas and pepper spray, to press China to honor that promise.

While flawed, the package is still the most progressive electoral model ever offered byChina's party leaders, in what might be a pilot for other cities within mainland China, according to a source close to Beijing's leadership.

If the plan is vetoed, Hong Kong's next leader will be selected as before, by a 1,200-member committee stacked with pro-Beijing loyalists, with Beijing unlikely to offer any fresh concessions to Hong Kong anytime soon.

Anger over the electoral package has spilled over to soccer, with supporters of the Hong Kong team loudly booing the Chinese national anthem on Tuesday at the start of a local World Cup Asian zone qualifying match against the Maldives.

Some fans turned their backs and others chanted "we are Hong Kong" in a repeat of similar scenes last week before Hong Kong's match against Bhutan.

(Reporting by James Pomfret; Editing by Nick Macfie)

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