imageHONG KONG: Tens of thousands of people will rally in Hong Kong on Wednesday to call for universal suffrage, as the city grapples with how its future leaders will be chosen under a long-awaited political reform.

Organisers say more than 50,000 people are expected to take part in the annual New Year's Day protest, less than one month after an official public consultation for the city's future electoral system opened.

Beijing has pledged that the important trade hub, which was given a semi-autonomous status after it was returned by Britain to China in 1997, will be able to choose its own leader in 2017.

It means that the former British colony could for the first time have a leader elected by the general public 20 years after the sovereignty handover. Under the current system, the chief executive is elected by a pro-Beijing committee.

But critics fear democrats and those critical of Beijing will still be filtered out in the nomination process.

One of their main concerns is that Beijing will control the list of candidates who can stand for election in 2017, restricting voters' choices despite the offer of universal suffrage.

“This (protest) will be to let our government and the CCP [Chinese Communist Party] know that Hong Kong people need and want a real democracy," Johnson Yeung, convenor of rally organiser Civil Human Rights Front, told AFP.

As a “special administrative region", Hong Kong has retained its own political and legal system since the 1997 handover that guarantees civil liberties not seen on the mainland.

Growing discontent

Protests are frequent in the city with a population of seven million.

And discontent over corruption scandals, sky-high housing prices, a growing wealth gap and the slow progress towards full democracy has led to sharp criticism of Beijing and its appointees.

Hong Kong's leader, Leung Chun-ying, suffers from particularly low popularity ratings 42 percent according to a December survey by Hong Kong University.

Yeung said he viewed 2014 and the ongoing debate over the city's future democratic system as a “battle" that must be won.

“This is the last time we can negotiate with the Chinese Communist Party and this will be a battle," he said.

Fears that Beijing might seek to control the list of candidates who can stand for election in 2017 were raised when mainland officials called on any future leader to be patriots.

In November, Li Fei, deputy secretary-general of the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress China's parliament said the city's future leader must not be someone who confronts the central government.

“This rally will give the CCP [Chinese Communist Party] a clear message that if you don't give us real democracy, there will be direct action from the people," Yeung said.

Mimicking the Occupy protests that broke out in 2011 in cities like New York and London, some activists have threatened to take over the streets of Hong Kong's business district later this year to try to force officials to guarantee a fair electoral system.