HONG KONG (CNN)-- It's a decision thousands of protesters feared.
China's powerful National People's Congress Standing Committee voted Sunday to change the way Hong Kong picks its chief executive, ruling that only candidates approved by a nominating committee will be allowed to run.
A top Chinese official made clear the candidates all must "love the country and love Hong Kong."
The city's current leader insists it's a step in the right direction.
"The majority of Hong Kong citizens, namely, the 5 million qualified voters of the selection of chief executive in 2017, will be able to cast their votes to select the chief executive," said Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying.
But that's not how Hong Kong's pro-democracy Occupy Central movement sees it. The group has vocally pushed for elections in which any candidate can run for chief executive. For weeks, protesters have taken to the streets.
In a statement on its website, the group slammed Beijing's decision as an move that stifles democracy and blocks people with different political views from running for office.
"Genuine universal suffrage includes both the rights to elect and to be elected," the statement said. "The decision of the NPC Standing Committee has deprived people with different political views of the right to run for election and be elected by imposing unreasonable restrictions, thereby perpetuating 'handpicked politics.' "
Under the "one country, two systems" policy, the 7 million residents of Hong Kong -- defined as a "Special Administrative Region" of China -- are afforded greater civil liberties than those in the mainland.
This reflects an agreement reached between China and the United Kingdom before the handover, which promised Hong Kong a "high degree of autonomy" for 50 years after its return.
But the decision to change the way Hong Kong picks its leader comes amid increasing fears that those freedoms are being eroded.
Currently, Hong Kong's leader is chosen by an election committee selected mostly by Beijing loyalists.
Beijing brushed aside demonstrators' demands for a fully open election in 2017, saying the decision to change the system is in line with Hong Kong's basic law. Protesters demands are self-serving, one top official said.
"Those people's so-called international standards are tailored for themselves," said Li Fei, deputy secretary general of the National People's Congress Standing Committee. "They are not the international standards, but their personal standards."
Throngs of pro-democracy protesters rallied in central Hong Kong on Sunday to condemn Beijing's decision and promised there would be more protests.
The threat of civil disobedience "is our bargaining power," Benny Tai, the organizer of Occupy Central, told CNN earlier this month. "They take us seriously, though they will never admit that."
After a massive rally calling for democracy in the Chinese territory in July, hundreds of demonstrators -- including prominent lawmakers -- were arrested.
Tens of thousands of demonstrators protesting Occupy Central marched in Hong Kong earlier this month. Local media swirled with reports of marchers getting paid or bused in to attend the pro-government march.
The march's organizer said he took the accusations seriously and would investigate but maintained that no laws were broken.