Thousands in Hong Kong rally for full, direct vote

Pro-democracy protesters shift target to the leaders of the Chinese mainland


HONG KONG - Hundreds of thousands of people swept through Hong Kong's streets yesterday despite searing heat to demand full, direct elections of city leaders and an end to harassment of pro-democracy activists.

The huge march presented a new challenge to China's communist leaders, who fear that a pro-democracy contagion in Hong Kong could spill onto the mainland.

A sea of some 350,000 people, some of them carrying placards that read "Return Power to the People," flowed for three hours in sticky 95-degree heat along a four-lane downtown boulevard.

While the protest lacked the sizzling anger of a similar march a year ago, when Hong Kong's economy slumped from the SARS epidemic and Beijing sought to impose a severe anti-subversion law on the city, the huge turnout signaled that much of Hong Kong still seethes at China's efforts to retreat from a 1997 promise to allow free elections.

Moreover, in a significant evolution, marchers didn't aim their anger just at the Beijing-appointed chief executive of Hong Kong, Tung Chee-hwa, but also at China's communist leaders, whom they blame for stifling their democratic aspirations.

"They are trying to make Hong Kong look like China - no freedom of speech, no rights," said a marcher, Jimmy Li, who described himself as a stock market investor.

In April, China announced that it retains veto power over democratic reforms in the former British colony. Chinese officials also ruled out a full, direct election in 2007 for a successor to Tung and in 2008 for the entire Legislative Council.

China's State Council said direct elections in Hong Kong could occur in 2012 at the earliest, and only "patriots" may take part.

"People are not happy about it," said Grover Ho, an advertising manager who helped coordinate the march. "We have to do something. We can't just sit and wait."

Many protesters wore T-shirts with the pictures of two popular radio talk-show hosts, Albert Cheng and Wong Yuk-man, who quit their programs in May because of apparent harassment. Other democracy activists report threatening phone calls and acts of arson against their offices in recent weeks.

The main organizer of the march, the Civil Human Rights Front, said about 350,000 people took part, less than the unprecedented 500,000 protesters who marched on July 1, 2003.

In the run-up to Thursday's march, leaders in Beijing sought to undercut momentum by quietly saying they were willing to meet with pro-democracy activists who didn't seek to subvert China's rule of the city of 6.8 million residents.

The huge turnout may embolden pro-democracy forces for elections in September, when voters will directly elect representatives to 30 of 60 seats in the Legislative Council. The rest of the seats will be chosen indirectly by interest groups. Many are sympathetic to Beijing.

Unlike past years, Beijing sent no senior leaders to a ceremony marking the July 1, 1997, handover of Hong Kong, apparently fearing embarrassment from the protest march.

At a flag-raising ceremony near Victoria Harbor, Tung told diplomats and dignitaries that Hong Kong should focus on expanding its capitalist economy while moving gradually toward democracy. He praised China's management of Hong Kong, which it considers a special administrative region.

"Seven years on, we take pride in every remarkable achievement our mother country has made," Tung told about 3,500 people. "It is our common goal and duty to maintain a healthy relationship between Hong Kong and the mainland."

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