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Pro-democracy protesters in Hong KongPro-democracy demonstrators take to the streets of Hong Kong on 14 June demanding lawmakers reject electoral reforms approved by Beijing in Hong Kong on 14 June. Thousands of people took to the streets of Hong Kong on Sunday to protest against electoral reforms approved by Beijing to choose the city’s next leader, the beginning of several days of demonstrations before the reforms go to a vote. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu Photograph: Tyrone Siu/Reuters

The Chinese president, Xi Jinping, must prove to the world he is a reformer by granting Hong Kong genuine democracy, a leading activist has said on the eve of a highly contentious vote on the former British colony’s political future.

Martin Lee, the founding chairman of Hong Kong’s Democratic party, said he believed pro-democracy lawmakers would reject a Beijing-backed “political reform package” governing the 2017 election of Hong Kong’s chief executive when they convened to discuss it on Wednesday.

Under the plans, Hong Kong’s citizens would be able to vote for their future leaders – but only after candidates had been approved by a pro-Beijing “nominating committee”.

“This is not genuine universal suffrage. The people of Hong Kong are given the vote but they select all the candidates. This is rotten. This is totally unacceptable, ” Lee said, urging China’s president to scrap the proposals.

“What better thing can Xi Jinping do than to show the world that he is a reformer and how better to show it than by giving Hong Kong democracy which was already promised?

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“I see hope in him and if I’m right then the whole world will applaud. If I’m wrong then that is going to be terrible, ” he added.

But with hours to go before Hong Kong’s parliament meets to vote on the package, a sudden about-turn from the Communist party is unthinkable.

“I am one of the very few people who are optimistic, ” admitted Lee.

Beijing has refused to modify its controversial plans – originally unveiled last August – despite mass demonstrations and a 79-day occupation of Hong Kong’s financial heart during last year’s Umbrella movement.

The blueprint, which if approved would come into effect in 2017, was “feasible, rational and pragmatic”, Hong Lei, a spokesperson for Beijing’s ministry of foreign affairs, said last week.

The 70 members of Hong Kong’s parliament will be given the choice of supporting or rejecting a bill that supporters say is a vital step towards universal suffrage but detractors label “fake democracy”.

At least four of its 27 pro-democracy lawmakers need to switch sides for the package to be approved.

Rumours have been swirling for months about possible incentives – including financial ones – the Communist party might have offered to lure pro-democracy politicians to its side, said Suzanne Pepper, a political writer and blogger. “The truth is nobody knows. You just assume that things are going on, ” she said.

However, on the eve of the vote – which is likely to take place on Thursday or Friday – experts and pro-democracy lawmakers said the most likely outcome was the package’s defeat.

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