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By James Pomfret
HONG KONG (Reuters) - Hong Kong Wednesday announced a political reform blueprint for electoral arrangements in 2012 that will have a key bearing on the city's struggle to realise direct elections in 2017.
The former British colony, which reverted to Chinese rule in 1997, has grappled with Beijing's Communist Party leaders for more than a decade over a roadmap towards achieving universal suffrage, as guaranteed in the city's mini-constitution.
Chief Secretary Henry Tang, who announced the proposed blueprint to lawmakers in the city's historic domed legislature, said further democratising Hong Kong's electoral system in 2012 was a "crucial step," but not a precondition, to realising direct elections in 2017.
"We have been adopting an empathetic attitude ... with utmost sincerity to roll forward Hong Kong's constitutional development towards the aim of universal suffrage," Tang said.
But Hong Kong's pro-democracy opposition lawmakers reacted with disappointment and scepticism, urging Beijing to allow direct elections in 2012, the next possible window.
"People want universal suffrage as soon as possible," said veteran pro-democracy lawmaker Emily Lau, who led a demonstration of hundreds of banner-waving protesters straight afterwards.
Government officials instead stressed Beijing would abide by a "solemn and binding" decision in 2007 to allow full democracy for the chief executive in 2017 and the "entire" legislature in 2020.
But when pressed on the shape of such polls, amid fears they would be tailored to preserve Beijing's grip over the city's political landscape, they were more circumspect.
"This goes beyond what the current term SAR government is authorised to deal with," Tang said. Hong's status within China is as a self-governing Special Autonomous Region (SAR).
The blueprint, which is subject to a three-month public consultation period and legislative approval, proposes increasing the number of legislative seats in 2012 from 60 to 70, though only five of these extra seats would be directly elected.
A small electoral college that now chooses the city's leader could also be enlarged from 800 to 1,200 members, though electoral rules, including a minimum nomination threshold, stacked against opposition candidates will likely be retained.
Hong Kong enjoys a unique position as the most politically liberal city in China. In 2007, Beijing's Communist leaders bowed to longstanding public pressure to promise universal suffrage in the city in 2017.
But pro-democracy politicians still seethe at having to wait almost a decade for fully democratic procedures and doubt the Communist Party will allow them to be implemented without making it difficult for opposition candidates to come to power.
"Beijing is leading us down a dead end," said pro-democracy lawmaker Lee Cheuk-yan.
Political analysts said Beijing's failure to provide a more substantive package and guarantees would only fuel suspicions and escalate political tensions in Hong Kong, with pro-democracy lawmakers having threatened to resign en masse in protest.
"(Beijing) prefers not to touch the issue and do it ten years later," said Ma Ngok of Hong Kong's Chinese University.
"But all the democrats are looking for is actually very simple, they want a pledge from the central government that 2017 will be a real deal, then they'll be happy to pass a minimal formula for 2012."
(Editing by Alex Richardson)