Thousands of people likely to join in HK pro-democracy march


Hong Kong, Reuters

Hundreds of thousands are expected to take to Hong Kong’s streets on Thursday, defying Beijing to demand more democracy in one of the biggest protests since the former British colony returned to Chinese rule.

Organizers estimated that 300,000 would join the march on the seventh anniversary of the city’s return to China. It is expected to be one of the hottest days of the year.

“I want Beijing to give us universal suffrage. Only then will Hong Kong have a stable environment,” financial consultant Chris Mak, who plans to join the protest, said on Wednesday.

The figure is less than the 500,000 who poured out into the streets on the same occasion last year to protest over a controversial draft law that would have outlawed acts of treason against China, but also over years of economic slowdown, the SARS epidemic and high unemployment. This year there are fewer catalysts for dissent. The so-called anti-subversion law has been shelved and the economy has picked up, largely due to help from Beijing.

This week, in a last-ditch attempt to draw more participants, dozens of community and religious groups and human rights organizations placed advertisements in local newspapers and handed out leaflets urging the territory’s seven million people to join in.

A large turnout at the rally could embarrass Beijing and heighten Communist Party fears that democratic sentiment could spill over to the mainland.

It could also be a barometer for how pro-democracy politicians will fare in legislative elections in September as they try to wrest control of Hong Kong’s top lawmaking body from pro-China supporters.

POMP AND CIRCUMSTANCE

The day will start with the pomp and circumstance of the official celebration of the handover of Hong Kong to China in 1997 after more than 150 years of British rule, a development that many in Hong Kong welcomed at the time.

Following a speech by Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa, China’s handpicked leader for the territory, the Peoples’ Liberation Army will put its arsenal of weapons and tanks on display.

Later, up to 1,000 police will be on hand as the pro-democracy protesters begin their march in mid-afternoon from a park to local government headquarters in the heart of one of Asia’s biggest financial centers. Under the system put in place at the time of the handover, Hong Kong has a high degree of autonomy while remaining clearly under Chinese rule.

In April this year, faced with growing calls for greater voting rights, including demands for full, direct elections from 2007, Beijing asserted its power over Hong Kong and made clear it would have the final say over its political future.

It began hurling abuse at democracy activists, calling them “clowns” and “traitors.”