Reuters International

Candidates' campaign posters for the Legislative Council election are displayed at a market in Hong Kong, China August 17, 2016. REUTERS/Bobby Yip/Files

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By Clare Jim and Venus Wu

HONG KONG (Reuters) - At least two large Chinese state-owned enterprises in Hong Kong are instructing staff how to vote in Sunday's legislative election, as Beijing seeks to thwart the chances of local democratic candidates, according to documents seen by Reuters.

The election is Hong Kong's most contentious since the 1997 handover to China, marking the most significant city-wide poll since the 2014 "Occupy Central" protests when tens of thousands took to the streets to demand full democracy.

Pro-Beijing politicians are seeking to win enough of the 70 seats in the Legislative Council to break the one-third veto-wielding bloc held by pro-democrat parties in the freewheeling global financial hub of 7 million people.

Staff at the Bank of China (Hong Kong) <2388.HK> have been given lists of pro-Beijing candidates and told to call their managers after voting, according to employees who have shown a list to Reuters.

Staff at property developer China Resources Land <1109.HK> were handed a letter from the Hong Kong Chinese Enterprises Association asking them to vote for patriotic candidates who "love China and love Hong Kong". They were also shown specific candidate lists in meetings with managers, one staff member told Reuters.

In a written reply to Reuters' questions, Bank of China (Hong Kong) did not address whether it gave voting recommendations to staff, but said it "supports and respects" its staff's right to vote.

China Resources Land and the Electoral Affairs Commission did not immediately respond to Reuters' questions.

Local social and political activists fear that Beijing is expanding its influence over Hong Kong, despite commitments to the "one country, two systems" formula agreed when Britain handed back its former colony that guarantee the city's extensive freedoms.

The election commission's guidelines warn people in positions that can exert pressure and influence over others, such as employers and teachers, to guard against breaching Hong Kong's corruption laws.

Under those laws, it is an offence to use force, threats or duress to influence a person's vote.

SECRET BALLOT

Some staff questioned whether the voting guidance would be effective, given the secrecy of the voting booths.

"As the vote cannot be traced, I think most...staff would not be affected or feel pressured by the recommendation, while those with neutral political views may get influenced," one Bank of China (Hong Kong) employee said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Some of the larger state enterprises have thousands of people in Hong Kong, with the Bank of China (Hong Kong) employing more than 15,000.

A worker at the Hong Kong Chinese Enterprises Association confirmed to Reuters by phone that all of its 1,000-odd member companies, including large state enterprises, had been sent the letter.

"There's nothing wrong with asking people to vote for someone who loves the country and loves Hong Kong," she said. "Newspapers and the government are saying the same. What's wrong with this?"

The association's current chairman is Yue Yi, Vice Chairman, Executive Director and Chief Executive of Bank of China (Hong Kong), according to its website.

The use of voting instructions have long been rumoured in Hong Kong elections, but evidence of such activity is rare.

While Beijing officially keeps a low-profile in Hong Kong under the mini-constitution that guides the relationship, its local Liaison Office co-ordinates action through grassroots and business organisations, as well as state enterprises, according to sources familiar with its so-called United Front work.

Liaison Office personnel have served on the association's committees, according to its website, and the association's activities are covered in Beijing-controlled newspapers.

The Liaison Office did not respond to Reuters' questions about whether it had any involvement in the voting instructions.

"Voting is an important civic right of our employees, and an embodiment of loving the country, loving Hong Kong and exercising their social responsibility," Bank of China said in its statement. "It is also a concrete action that contributes to the long-term prosperity and stability of Hong Kong."

(Reporting By Clare Jim, Venus Wu and Hong Kong bureau; Writing by Greg Torode in Hong Kong; Editing by Alex Richardson)

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