HONG KONG (Reuters) - Tens of thousands of people on Friday marked the anniversary of Hong Kong's return to China by marching to demand full voting rights, but the crowds were far smaller than in the last two years.
Holding banners and placards which read "Return power to the people", the protesters also called for an end to what they said were cosy government relations with big business.
"We want universal suffrage," "Against collusion between the government and big business," they shouted at the annual protest, which coincides with the anniversary of the return of the former British colony to Chinese rule in 1997.
The protest organiser, Civil Human Rights Front, estimated the crowd at 45,000, a mere fraction of the demonstrations in 2003 and 2004 which drew turnouts of 500,000. Local authorities gave no crowd estimate.
With the economy recovering strongly, resignation of unpopular former leader Tung Chee-hwa in March and his replacement by his popular deputy Donald Tsang, the rally this year appears to have lost considerable appeal.
"People are just happy that Tung is gone and they want to give Donald Tsang some time to see how he handles Hong Kong," said political commentator Andy Ho.
Taxi driver Lee Ming-tat agreed: "The mood in society is a lot better, more people now have jobs."
Though Beijing has ruled out universal suffrage for Hong Kong for several more years, the protesters are still insisting on full voting rights as soon as possible.
"So what if we now have a different leader? The system is still not changed. We want the right to choose our own leader," said Peter Cheung, a sales executive.
Like Tung, Tsang was not popularly elected but selected by a Beijing-sanctioned electoral college of 800 people.
The march, which began in Victoria Park, ended peacefully in the early evening outside government headquarters in the Central business district.
ECONOMY TOPS GOVERNMENT AGENDA
The march began hours after Tsang, senior officials and other dignitaries attended a flag-raising ceremony at the promenade in Wanchai district to mark the handover eight years ago.
Tsang, appointed Hong Kong's leader late last month, urged the city's 7 million residents on Monday to channel their energies towards the economy and livelihood matters. He also said these issues would be at the top of his agenda during his two-year tenure.
Citing a government survey, he said people ranked politics far below economic and livelihood concerns. Even pollution and the size of primary school classes took precedence over politics in the poll, he added.
At a reception shortly after the flag-raising ceremony, Tsang promised a "people-oriented" governance.
"I guarantee to all citizens that policy decisions will be clear and fast, decisions will be based on citizens' interests and enforcement of these decisions will be efficient," he said.
Although Tsang has pledged to be more open and responsive to the people, his critics are sceptical as to how much he will do to preserve its freedoms and fight for universal suffrage.
They also say the veteran civil servant will need to please his communist masters in Beijing, to whom he owes his job.
To counter the pro-democracy protest, some 28,000 people joined a celebration parade organised by some 800 pro-Beijing groups just hours before the protest march.
After a separate flag-raising ceremony at the Hong Kong Stadium, they marched through Wanchai, accompanied by a noisy string of performing troupes and lion and dragon dancers.