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Thousands join HK democracy march

People in Hong Kong Thursday protested,  demanding a greater role in government.
People in Hong Kong Thursday protested, demanding a greater role in government.

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Hong Kong

HONG KONG, China (Reuters) -- Tens of thousands of people streamed into Hong Kong streets on New Year's Day to demand greater democracy in the biggest march since huge protests in July shocked local leaders and Beijing.

Shouting "We demand more democracy," "Return power to the people" and "One man, one vote," political activists, workers and families filed slowly from a park in the busy Causeway Bay shopping district to government offices in central Hong Kong.

Organizers said 100,000 people had joined the march by 6 p.m. (5:00 a.m. ET), five times more than expected, while a Reuters photographer estimated the number at 70,000 to 80,000. Police said they would not provide a total figure.

By 8 p.m. (7:00 a.m. ET) the last of the marchers were quietly dispersing in the former British colony after tying yellow ribbons to the gate of the government office to symbolize their demands.

Before they set off, religious groups prayed that Hong Kong voters would be allowed to elect their own leaders.

"We want full democracy -- the right to elect our own chief executive and all members of the Legislative Council," said Richard Tsoi, a spokesman for the organizers who also led the July 1 march, which drew half a million people into the streets.

"China's new leaders have shown they are willing to listen to people's views so it is important for Hong Kong people to stand up and voice their demands strongly and clearly," Tsoi said.

Tung's policy speech

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In a New Year's Day march, Hong Kong protesters call for democratic reforms. Matt Walsh reports.
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Tsoi said Hong Kong Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa must address calls for more democracy when he delivers his annual policy speech on January 7 or face more protests.

"The size of the turnout was very encouraging. It sends a clear message that Hong Kong people want full democracy and that is building momentum."

Hong Kong's first mass demonstration of the new year was widely seen as a test of whether public anger at the deeply unpopular Tung has cooled in recent months and was expected to be closely watched by China's communist leaders.

Already fearful that Taiwan could move toward formal independence, China is worried that calls for more democracy could loosen its grip on Hong Kong and spread to the mainland.

Some pro-China politicians had warned that a large turnout on Thursday could increase anxiety in Beijing.

China largely controls Hong Kong, even though the city was promised a high degree of autonomy after Britain handed it back in 1997. It selects the city's leader and has devised a system that ensures many law-makers are pro-government.

Hong Kong's constitution says its leader and all law-makers can be directly elected from 2007 but gives no details.

After years of avoiding the issue, Tung's government has promised to release soon a timetable for consultation. But many doubt Beijing will allow direct elections for chief executive.

In a statement, the Hong Kong government said it would start collecting views on democratic development as soon as possible.

No big changes

It also said it would move forward on reforms in a gradual and orderly manner as stipulated in Hong Kong's constitution, wording which many critics interpret as meaning that neither it nor Beijing want to see any significant changes soon.

Tung has been fiercely criticized for a string of policy decisions since he took office. His insistence on trying to push through a tough anti-subversion bill sparked the July protest and triggered Hong Kong's biggest political crisis in years.

Democracy parties, capitalizing on the growing frustration, dealt a heavy blow to pro-China forces in local elections in November and are gearing up for a September bid to wrest control of Hong Kong's top legislative body.

Tung fueled fresh public anger on Saturday by appointing 102 people to district councils, snubbing demands that ordinary people be given more say in choosing local leaders.

"The government didn't heed the voice of the people on July 1. They still do whatever they want," said Anna Yip as she prepared to march.

Wary of inflaming public opinion further, the government has withdrawn the security bill and backed down on other contentious plans. Two unpopular ministers have resigned.

Beijing has also showered economic favors on the city since July in a bid to boost public confidence.

While the economy has since improved, dissatisfaction with the government continues to grow, feeding calls for reform.

Copyright 2004 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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