Thousands march for Hong Kong democracy, but crowds down on last year

HONG KONG: Tens of thousands of Hong Kong protesters marched for full democracy on Wednesday and called on the Chinese-controlled city's leader to resign, just weeks after lawmakers voted down an electoral reform package backed by China.

The turnout, estimated by organisers at 48,000, was one of the lowest for the march marking the anniversary of Hong Kong's return from British to Chinese rule in 1997. Last year's protest drew more than half a million people when debate over the city's democratic reforms was near fever pitch.

"I want real universal suffrage" the crowds chanted on a sweltering day, with many holding yellow umbrellas, a symbol of the "Umbrella Movement" last year when protesters blocked major roads to pressure Beijing to allow direct elections in 2017.

But after a series of wrenching street protests and the veto of the electoral reform package, many chose not to show up.

"Hong Kong people have been through a lot and they've mobilized massively over the past few years," said Johnson Yeung, with the Civil Human Rights Front, one of the main organisers of the march.

"So after the veto, it's quite natural for them to want to take a rest."

Some heckling and heated exchanges broke out between the democracy activists and pro-Beijing groups who hurled insults from the sidelines, with police separating the two sides.

Some activists fighting for greater autonomy and even independence from China held up signs calling for a "Hong Kong nation", while others waved Hong Kong's old colonial-era flags featuring a UK Union Jack.

Others, including student democracy leader Joshua Wong, shouted for Hong Kong's leader, Leung Chun-ying, to step down.

"Remake the future of our city. Build a democratic Hong Kong," he shouted to the crowds.

The march comes nearly two weeks after Hong Kong's legislature vetoed a Beijing-sanctioned electoral reform proposal that had triggered the sometimes violent protests, presenting Beijing with one of its most serious challenges in years.

The electoral blueprint would have allowed a direct vote for Hong Kong's next leader in 2017, but only from among pre-screened, pro-Beijing candidates - a proposal decried as "fake" democracy by protesters.

Speaking at a morning flag-raising ceremony, Leung called for the financial hub to move forward.

"Even though political reforms have taken up considerable effort and time, the Hong Kong government will strengthen economic development and improve people's livelihoods," he said.

Hong Kong returned to China under a "one country, two systems" formula that granted the city wide-ranging freedoms denied in mainland China, including the freedom to protest.

Hong Kong must "fulfil responsibilities to safeguard national security", according to a national security law, passed in Beijing on Wednesday, which also covers crimes of subversion and inciting rebellion. That reference could spark more fears of Beijing encroaching on Hong Kong's rule of law.