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Thousands Participate in Hong Kong Pro-Democracy March


Thousands of Hong Kong residents marched through the city to mark the ninth anniversary of the former British colony's return to Chinese rule. Hong Kong was granted broad autonomy when it returned to China in 1997, but pledges to implement universal suffrage are unlikely to take form anytime soon.

The sound of China's national anthem echoed Saturday morning at a ceremony celebrating Hong Kong's 1997 return to mainland sovereignty, and the end of more than 150 years of British rule.

But several hours later, thousands of people marched through the streets, demanding that government officials in Beijing and Hong Kong move forward with plans for universal suffrage for the special autonomous region.

Organizers and some news media estimated the crowd at nearly 20,000 people, but official estimates were not available.

One Hong Kong resident, Herman Ho, has participated in several of these rallies, which have been held on July 1, since 2003. He says residents need to urge Hong Kong's chief executive, Donald Tsang, to take a stand in favor of democracy.

"I think we need to give pressure to Donald Tsang to fight to have elections, to have a better system to the elections," he said. "Because I think we really need to give pressure to Donald Tsang about this, to fight for us."

Since 1997, a committee of 800 people has selected Hong Kong's chief executive from a list of candidates approved by Beijing. Only half of the legislature is directly elected. But the city's Basic Law, a mini-constitution, promises that full democracy will eventually be granted, although it does not say when.

Another Hong Kong resident says she and her family have participated in rallies since 2003, when more than 500,000 people protested. She says she is marching on behalf of her children, in the hope that someday Hong Kong will enjoy full democratic rights. But she says universal suffrage is not likely to come anytime soon.

"But at least we voice our opinion, and I think we want people to know about it," she said.

The number of marchers has dwindled in the past few years, in part because the city's economy has improved and partly because of Mr. Tsang, who took office last year. He is more popular than his predecessor, and seen as more in tune with the public's concerns.

However, activists had hoped the appearance of Anson Chan, the former head of the Hong Kong civil service, would increase participation this year. In recent days, Chan, one of the most popular public figures in the city, urged people to take to the streets.

Early in the day, thousands of other people celebrated Hong Kong's return to China by taking part in parades, rallies and musical performances.

Hong Kong was returned to China under a "one country, two systems" formula. The territory has its own courts, police force and political system, and it retains civil liberties not found elsewhere in China.

But activists and opposition members in Hong Kong's legislature say that is not enough.

Beijing says full universal suffrage must come gradually, and has ruled out direct elections for the chief executive in 2007, and all members of the legislature in 2008.