HONG KONG: Tens of thousands of people dressed in white poured onto the streets yesterday to vent their frustration at Chinese rule and challenge Beijing's refusal to allow them to elect their own leaders.
Waving green and black banners and sheltering under umbrellas from the searing sun, protesters chanting “Return power to the people, fight for democracy” streamed from a park to government offices in the heart of the city several kilometres away.
Organisers said tens of thousands of people had gathered by mid-afternoon and estimated that as many as 300,000 people would join the march on the seventh anniversary of the former British colony's return to China, a public holiday.
“I am here to tell Beijing that we want democracy, we want to elect our own chief executive,” explained construction worker Chan Sum Kee, 54, who said he was marching in a protest for the first time in his life.
Many protesters wore white t-shirts, marking hopes for greater democracy and freedom.
Last year, half a million demonstrators took to the streets wearing black to symbolise despair over a string of government missteps, including a controversial draft law that would have outlawed acts of treason against China.
Earlier, in an unusually low-key ceremony to celebrate the 1997 handover, Beijing's handpicked leader for Hong Kong made only a passing reference to the debate over elections, telling dignitaries that full democracy would come only gradually.
“According to the Basic Law (Hong Kong's mini-constitution), to achieve universal suffrage gradually is our common goal,” Tung Chee-hwa told assembled dignitaries, speaking in Cantonese.
Unlike past years, no Chinese leader was present at the ceremony, which analysts speculated was due to the march to take place later in the day.
In Beijing, China maintained that Hong Kong enjoyed “political stability” and “unprecedented democracy,” but refused to comment on huge protests marking the seventh anniversary of the return of the city to Chinese sovereignty.
“Hong Kong affairs are the internal affairs of China. The Chinese government and people have the capability and wisdom and resolve to handle Hong Kong affairs,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhang Qiyue said.
Protesters last year denounced Tung's inability to revive the struggling economy, the government's handling of the SARS epidemic and high unemployment.
This year there are fewer catalysts for dissent, with the focus clearly on demands for more voting rights than Beijing is prepared to allow.
Many people in Hong Kong remain deeply frustrated with Beijing's reluctance to consider major political reforms.
China tightened its grip on Hong Kong in April by flatly ruling out universal suffrage in 2007, when the city's next chief executive is due to be selected. The move infuriated democrats and alienated many people in Hong Kong, who accused it of breaking its promise to allow them a high degree of autonomy.
Chinese officials also heaped abuse on leading democracy activists, calling them “clowns” and “traitors”.
Both sides have softened their rhetoric in recent weeks, and veteran pro-democracy campaigner Martin Lee called for more improvement in relations, including direct dialogue and lifting a ban on trips by activists like himself to the mainland.
The ban has been in place since the Tiananmen massacre of pro-democracy protesters in 1989. – Agencies
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