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Mass protest in Hong Kong

By CNN's Marianne Bray

Is Hong Kong better off now than it was seven years ago?
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Hong Kong

HONG KONG, China (CNN) -- Hundreds of thousands of protesters have poured into Hong Kong's streets in sweltering heat, demanding China's communist leaders take note of their demand for more democracy.

Carrying banners calling for Beijing to "protect freedom for democracy" and chanting "return power to the people," the massive crowd snaked past the city's skyscrapers towards government headquarters on Thursday.

"We know we have the power of the people ... to say no to Beijing," said Raymond Lee from the Democratic Party, who was chanting to the crowd through a loudspeaker from a walkway in the commercial district of Wan Chai.

While the government has yet to say how many people turned up to march on Thursday -- the 7th anniversary of the former British colony's handover to China -- organizers said as many as 450,000 people may have flocked to the streets.

Dressed in white T-shirts, they swarmed through both sides of a downtown road, wiping their brows and fanning themselves to cope with temperatures hitting 34 degrees Celsius (93.2 Fahrenheit).

Last year, half a million took to the streets on July 1, protesting against a controversial anti-subversion bill amid worries about the territory's future and outrage over the government's handling of the deadly SARS epidemic.

That protest so shocked leaders in Beijing that they backtracked on the anti-subversion bill and doled out economic incentives to turn around record unemployment in one of Asia's largest financial centers.

Beijing pledges

Hong Kong was given a high degree of autonomy when it was handed over to China in 1997 under the "one country, two systems" formula after 150 years of British rule.

Beijing pledged to keep the special administrative region's capitalist systems and way of life "unchanged" for 50 years, and the territory's mini-constitution in theory allowed for direct elections in the territory as soon as 2007.

But concerned that calls for democracy will spill over to mainland China and worried it may lose control over the territory, Beijing has been cracking down on the law ahead of legislative elections in September.

In April, Beijing ruled out universal suffrage and the election of a chief executive over the near term and at the same time called pro-democracy activists "unpatriotic."

Those moves have infuriated residents who have turned a public holiday meant to celebrate a return to Chinese hands into a day to vent their frustration at Beijing rule.

"Democracy means being able to change the government and there's absolutely no chance of that in the current situation," said Keith Watson, an expatriate who has lived in Hong Kong for seven years.

In Hong Kong, unpopular leader Tung Chee-hwa was handpicked by a committee loyal to Beijing and less than half the legislature was directly elected.

While there have been peace gestures from Beijing as well as a leading pro-democracy activist in recent weeks, Tung made only a passing reference to the democracy debate at a flag raising ceremony that launched the official celebrations of the anniversary.

China's latest actions have thrown into doubt Beijing's commitment to democracy, analysts have said.

Only 43 percent of 1,045 people interviewed in a poll conducted by the University of Hong Kong in February said they trusted Beijing, down from 50 percent at the end of December.

"The government performance is not satisfactory and the people near the president in China are disturbing democracy in Hong Kong," said one protester, student Henry Yu.

But buoyed by the government's stunning turnaround following last year's march, people in Hong Kong are taking to the streets to voice their concerns and exercise their right.

"It's good to carry on this kind of culture and encourage people to speak up for what they believe is right for them," said Hong Kong-born Clara Ko.

Protesters like Wayne Cheng, who works in the advertising industry, is hopeful that the powers in Beijing will again listen to Hong Kong, bringing out his wife and two children to the city's streets on Thursday.

"What we want for our children is hope for the future, and the freedom to vote," he said, wiping the sweat from his brow.

Hong Kong is the only place in China where people are allowed to protest and Beijing will be watching the latest march with great interest.

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