HONG KONG (Reuters) - 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.
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 by China'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