- Beijing says only candidates approved by a nominating panel can run to lead Hong Kong
- The city's current leader insists it's a step in the right direction
- Hong Kong's pro-democracy Occupy Central movement says it's a move that stifles democracy
- Protesters take to the streets in Hong Kong and vow more civil disobedience
It's a decision thousands of protesters feared.
China's powerful National People's Congress Standing Committee voted Sunday to change the way Hong Kong picks its chief executive, ruling that only candidates approved by a nominating committee will be allowed to run.
A top Chinese official made clear the candidates all must "love the country and love Hong Kong."
The city's current leader insists it's a step in the right direction.
"The majority of Hong Kong citizens, namely, the 5 million qualified voters of the selection of chief executive in 2017, will be able to cast their votes to select the chief executive," said Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying.
Speaking at an event Monday to explain the NPC's decision, he added: "This is the first opportunity -- a very good opportunity -- for Hong Kong to have one man, one vote -- universal suffrage. This is something we should all feel proud of."
But that's not how Hong Kong's pro-democracy Occupy Central movement sees it. The group has vocally pushed for elections in which any candidate can run for chief executive. For weeks, protesters have taken to the streets.
In a statement on its website, the group slammed Beijing's decision as a move that stifles democracy and blocks people with different political views from running for office.
"Genuine universal suffrage includes both the rights to elect and to be elected," the statement said. "The decision of the NPC Standing Committee has deprived people with different political views of the right to run for election and be elected by imposing unreasonable restrictions, thereby perpetuating 'handpicked politics.'"
Scores of people -- including pro-Beijing groups and pro-democracy supporters -- gathered at the city's AsiaWorld-Expo Monday where the city's decision-makers were meeting. Local media reported chaotic scenes at the conference center as pan-democrats attempted to disrupt an address by Li Fei, deputy secretary general of the NPC Standing Committee.
Under the "one country, two systems" policy, the 7 million residents of Hong Kong -- defined as a "Special Administrative Region" of China -- are afforded greater civil liberties than those in the mainland.
This reflects an agreement reached between China and the United Kingdom before the handover, which promised Hong Kong a "high degree of autonomy" for 50 years after its return.
But the decision to change the way Hong Kong picks its leader comes amid increasing fears that those freedoms are being eroded.
Currently, Hong Kong's leader is chosen by an election committee selected mostly by Beijing loyalists.
Beijing brushed aside demonstrators' demands for a fully open election in 2017, saying the decision to change the system is in line with Hong Kong's basic law. Protesters demands are self-serving, one top official said.
"Those people's so-called international standards are tailored for themselves," said Li Fei, deputy secretary general of the National People's Congress Standing Committee. "They are not the international standards, but their personal standards."
Throngs of pro-democracy protesters rallied in central Hong Kong on Sunday to condemn Beijing's decision and promised there would be more protests.
The threat of civil disobedience "is our bargaining power," Benny Tai, the organizer of Occupy Central, told CNN earlier this month. "They take us seriously, though they will never admit that."
After a massive rally calling for democracy in the Chinese territory in July, hundreds of demonstrators -- including prominent lawmakers -- were arrested.
Tens of thousands of demonstrators protesting Occupy Central marched in Hong Kong earlier this month. Local media swirled with reports of marchers getting paid or bused in to attend the pro-government march.
The march's organizer said he took the accusations seriously and would investigate but maintained that no laws were broken.
But a commentary published Monday by the state-controlled Global Times dismissed this opposition and suggested Hong Kong's political reforms had come to a "foregone conclusion."
"The radical opposition camp is doomed to be a paper tiger in front of Hong Kong's mainstream public opinion and the firm resolution of the central government," it said.
"These radicals could indeed incite a group of people to rally with them but they are facing a powerful will and a strong legal framework that Hong Kong must remain stable. They will definitely be called to account if they resort to illegal confrontation. And if they raise objections in a legal way, their efforts will end in vain."
Meanwhile, Fernando Chui Sai-on has been re-elected uncontested as Macau's chief executive. Like nearby Hong Kong, Macau is a "Special Administrative Region" of China, following its transition from Portuguese control in 1999.
The territory has itself faced calls for greater democracy, though its constitution makes no mention of universal suffrage. A recent unofficial poll on this question was shut down by police and several pro-democracy organizers were arrested for allegedly breaching privacy laws.