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July 01, 2013

100,000 March in Hong Kong for Democracy, Leader's Resignation

by Michael Lipin

At least 100,000 Hong Kong residents have joined an annual march to demand full democracy on the 16th anniversary of the former British territory's return to Chinese sovereignty. 

Many of those who joined Monday's protest called for the city's unelected leader Leung Chun-ying to step down, and for the government to ensure a free election for his chief executive post in 2017.

The demonstrators turned the streets into a sea of umbrellas as they braved a tropical storm's heavy rain for the traditional July 1 march from Hong Kong's Victoria Park to the central business district.

Ms. Ho, a Hong Kong parent who marched with her young son, told VOA the bad weather made the protest more impressive. "Since so many people have come out to brave the (tropical cyclone), the government should really listen to us," she said.

Organizers claimed a turnout of 430,000, far exceeding the police estimate of 66,000. Hong Kong University researchers who monitored the march estimated a turnout of 103,000, an increase of about 20,000 from their figure for last year's protest. The marches began in 2003 with a half-million participants - the largest of the protests to date.

Leung under pressure

Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung took office on July 1, 2012 after being selected by a committee dominated by the pro-government establishment and Beijing loyalists. Since then, his popularity has slumped because of scandals involving his Cabinet and conduct before taking office, and public anger about high property prices and a growing influx of mainland Chinese people snapping up the city's resources.

China has agreed to let Hong Kong citizens directly elect their chief executive when Leung's term expires in 2017.

Earlier Monday, Leung repeated a pledge to begin a public consultation about electoral arrangements for 2017 at an "appropriate time." He spoke at a ceremony celebrating the anniversary of Hong Kong's 1997 handover. Later in the day, Leung's government promised to listen "carefully" to the marchers' views.

Election worries

Some of the protesters said they fear Beijing will influence election rules to block pro-democracy candidates from running for chief executive. They accused China of trying to "colonize" Hong Kong, and waved the territory's former British colonial flag in protest.

At the march, a 16-year-old student named Lai said he is concerned that future elections will not be fair. "Universal suffrage means equality. But from the news that I watched before, I saw that some pro-Beijing people were twisting this concept. So I think we must fight for a real and equal universal suffrage," he said.

China has guaranteed Hong Kong a high degree of autonomy and promised to maintain its way of life for at least 50 years. It also has declared that all members of the territory's 70-seat legislature can be directly elected in 2020 at the earliest.

Only 40 lawmakers were chosen directly by voters during the last election in 2012. The other 30 were elected by "functional" constituencies of industry and community representatives who are mostly loyal to the government.

Surveying the marchers

Speaking to VOA by phone, Hong Kong University professor Paul Yip said his research team calculated the turnout estimate for Monday's march by counting marchers at two points along the route. He said they also interviewed marchers at both points and estimated that almost one-third joined the procession in between.

He said he also went into the crowds himself.

"They complained about quite a lot of things, such as the education system and the housing shortage, which is very acute because young people have a lot of difficulty in acquiring a living space," Yip said. "The marchers also complained about the performance of the Hong Kong government."

Yip said Leung should try to address those complaints soon.

"Otherwise I just worry about this frustration. I think it is very contagious and will spread to other groups. And I think the people tend to be getting more and more dissatisfied with the current administration."

Lengthy protest

The march was peaceful and marred only by a brief scuffle between some demonstrators and police.

VOA correspondent Dahai Han followed the procession and said protesters continued to arrive at the end point in the city's Chater Garden park six hours after the first marchers set off.

Han also said several hundred remained in Chater Garden late into the night to start a 50-hour hunger strike in support of their demands. Pro-democracy activists plan to launch a civil disobedience campaign called "Occupy Central" next July to pressure the government to let opposition candidates compete in the 2017 vote.

(Katy Tan in Hong Kong contributed to this report.)