Pro-democracy join a major protest march
HONG KONG: Thousands of demonstrators hit the streets of Hong Kong on Sunday in the first major protest since China decided last month to delay the introduction of full democracy in the city.
Democrats have been pressing for direct elections by 2012 of the entire legislature and Hong Kong's Chief Executive, or leader, currently chosen by around 800 mostly Beijing loyalists.
But the Chinese leadership last month ruled that direct election of the chief executive would not come before 2017 at the earliest, while that of the entire legislature may only be possible in at least 2020.
Democrats, who have been waiting for the universal suffrage promised under the Basic Law instituted when Britain handed Hong Kong back to China in 1997, said they would fight Beijing's ruling.
At Sunday's march, organisers said 22,000 demonstrators turned out, 2,000 more than they had anticipated.
Police said 6,800 protesters gathered at the start of the procession and 6,000 arrived at government headquarters, the final destination.
"We are very satisfied with the turnout. This reflects Hong Kong people have not given up and shown their determination," said pro-democracy legislator Lee Cheuk-yan.
"As long as we keep this up, everything is possible," he said urging Beijing to reconsider its decision and warning of more protests if China refuses to budge.
Hong Kong has been under special administrative status since the handover to China and will revert to full Chinese control in 2047. China retains the right to have the final say on any political reforms in the city.
Analysts say Beijing fears that a move to unhindered democracy could spark the same demand on the Chinese mainland and fuel social unrest in the country.
Currently, only half of the territory's 60 legislators are directly elected, while the remaining seats are held by representatives of business and professional groups mostly loyal to Beijing.
Veteran democratic campaigner Martin Lee said: "I hope this will send out a strong message to the Beijing government that Hong Kong people want a genuine democracy."
Cardinal Joseph Zen, head of the city's 250,000 Catholics, led the protest march waving a huge banner that read: "Democracy delayed is democracy denied." "The central government has once again undermined Hong Kong people's aspirations and violently made a decision ruling out universal suffrage in 2012. We are regrettable and angry about it," he said.
"Hong Kong people are kind but they have pushed us too much."
Former Hong Kong chief-secretary-turned-legislator Anson Chan also took to the streets.
China's ruling came after Chief Executive Donald Tsang's recent report that said a majority of the public wanted the leader to be elected by universal suffrage in 2012.
Speaking on local radio Sunday, Tsang acknowledged the disappointment of pro-democracy activists but urged them to accept the sketchy timetable set by the Chinese authorities.
"I hope everyone will be able to focus on what is possible, rather than what is not," Tsang said. "This is a historic opportunity. We should embrace it."
Wheelchair-bound Tang Kin-wa, 58, who took part in the march, said: "If we don't come out, China will think we don't need democracy. We hope we can unite together and use people's power to tell them we mean it."
Alex Lam, a 49-year-old clerk who joined with his eight-year-old son, said: "We have waited and waited. When will this ever happen? If I don't do come out today, what will happen to my children?"
A woman who gave her surname as Mak, in her 70s, was not optimistic that she would see full democracy in the city in her lifetime but hoped at least her participation will help the next generation.
"We need a freer and open society. I don't think I'll see universal suffrage in my lifetime. I might not be able to wait that long. But at least I hope my children will be able to enjoy it. Then I would be very happy," she added.