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Hundreds of Thousands Join Democracy March in Hong Kong - 2004-07-01

More than 200,000 Hong Kong residents ignored oppressive heat and marched to demand greater democracy. As the city marks seven years since its return to Chinese rule, the protest highlights simmering frustrations with China's one country, two systems policy.

Music blares as thousands of people start marching through the center of Hong Kong in a call for greater democracy and an end to Beijing's involvement in Hong Kong's affairs.

Retiree Duncan Chang was among the marchers.

"We Hong Kong people, we like freedom, we like free elections, we don't like what Chinese government [is] doing," he said.

Thursday marked the seventh anniversary of the former British colony's return to Chinese rule. Under the one country, two systems policy, Hong Kong residents were assured a great degree of autonomy and political freedom. But some people here accuse Beijing of unduly influencing local policy.

Since a protest march last summer drew more than half a million people, Chinese officials have become more involved in Hong Kong's affairs and have taken a tougher line on demands for political reform.

Earlier this year, Beijing called pro-democracy leaders traitors and accused them of damaging Hong Kong's economy. And in April, China rejected demands for universal suffrage in time to choose the city's new chief executive in 2007. But in the lead-up to Thursday's march, both sides appeared to back away from direct confrontation.

March organizers said they would take a less strident tone and Beijing agreed to facilitate talks with pro-democracy leaders.

Hong Kong University Professor John Burns says the thaw in relations reflects a common concern that the war of words could cost votes in the coming elections.

"One of the pressures, of course, is trying to do well in the September elections," prof. Burns said. "So the Democrats are trying to widen their appeal and the official government policy apparently now is to be more conciliatory."

The elections will select representatives for the local assembly - 30 of the 60 members are elected, the rest are chosen by special interest and professional groups. The chief executive is chosen by a committee largely assembled by Beijing.

Many government supporters have argued that Hong Kong's Western-style civil liberties are intact, as shown by the government's tolerance for the huge march, which would not be possible elsewhere in China.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Zhang Qiyue defended Beijing's handling of Hong Kong.

She told reporters Thursday that Hong Kong enjoys real and unprecedented democracy, but warned that Hong Kong's affairs were an internal Chinese concern.