Hundreds of thousands of Hong Kong people marched Thursday in a massive, impassioned plea for full democracy, mixed with anger at Beijing for recently denying them the right to directly choose their government.
Tempers have flared here since China ruled in April that ordinary citizens cannot elect the successor to their unpopular leader, Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa, in 2007 or all lawmakers in 2008.
“We don’t want to be subservient to the central government,” said Ben Kwok, a 40-year-old factory owner. “We don’t want Hong Kong to become like the mainland, where even the news gets censored.”
People took to the streets en masse on the seventh anniversary of the former British colony’s handover to Chinese sovereignty.
Protest organizer Jackie Hung, a Roman Catholic activist, told The Associated Press that more than 400,000 people had turned out, but the crowd was still marching in the early evening. Earlier, a police officer said at least 90,000 people were counted in less than an hour, but the crowd was still growing at that point.
“Only democracy can save Hong Kong,” said 65-year-old Cheuk Kuang, a former driver. “The communist government is intervening too much in Hong Kong and it’s trying to shut down all opposition voices.”
Marchers filled all four lanes of a major downtown thoroughfare, peacefully chanting slogans, holding up signs and waving inflatable Tung dolls as they made their way to the fenced-off Hong Kong government headquarters.
The march came on the first anniversary of a protest by 500,000 people that stunned the Hong Kong and Beijing governments and forced Tung to withdraw an anti-subversion bill that many had viewed as a threat to freedoms.
Many accuse Tung of being a puppet to Beijing.
“The Hong Kong government is just foolish,” said clerk Maggie Yung. “It’s completely turned a blind eye to the people.”
But the mood seemed less angry than last year. Thousands of the protesters were fanning themselves on the hottest day of the year, with temperatures hitting 94.
Despite Beijing’s ruling in April that shattered hopes for universal suffrage in the near future, many of the demonstrators from all walks of life vowed to keep pushing for reform.
“Someone said there’s no point in protesting,” said 44-year-old Lo Keung-wah, who sells construction materials. “But is it any good if we don’t protest?”
Tung and other dignitaries stood at attention in the morning as the Chinese and Hong Kong flags were solemnly raised to the sounds of the national anthem. Outside, a dozen activists tried to carry a mock black coffin toward the ceremony but were held back by a larger group of police.
Protesters have rankled Beijing with what it views as a provocative rallying cry: “Return power to the people.”
China claims 'unprecedented democracy'
In Beijing, China’s government defended Hong Kong’s political system as “real and unprecedented democracy” and rejected criticism of its handling of the territory as foreign interference in its affairs.
“The residents of Hong Kong enjoy real and unprecedented democracy, which can be witnessed by the international community,” Foreign Minister spokeswoman Zhang Qiyue told a news conference when asked to comment on the protests in Hong Kong.
In Hong Kong, a mainland visitor, 30-year-old accountant Bob Zhuang, watched the early morning demonstration for a few minutes and called the activists “stupid.”
“Should such a protest really be allowed in this territory?” Zhuang asked, waving a red Chinese flag.
Pro-democracy figures hope Thursday’s march will generate momentum for September legislative elections that will let ordinary citizens choose 30 of the territory’s 60 lawmakers, up from 24 four years ago.
The rest are chosen by special interest groups, such as businessmen, doctors and lawyers, who tend to side with Beijing. The central and territorial governments want to avoid ending up with a legislature that won’t back Tung, something that hasn’t happened in the seven years since Britain returned this former colony to China.
Tung was chosen by an 800-member committee loyal to Beijing.
The central government permits no political dissent in the mainland and was clearly worried about the rally.