BEIJING — Carrying banners saying “defend freedom” and “Chinese colonialists get out,” tens of thousands of marchers took to the rainy streets of Hong Kong on Monday to demand full direct elections and removal of the city’s chief executive.
“We want one person, one vote,” activist Joshua Wong told the crowd that massed at Victoria Park and then marched toward the city’s central business district. “That’s why we are here.”
The annual democracy demonstration coincided with celebrations marking the 16th anniversary of Britain’s handover of the former colony to China in 1997.
Organizers had hoped that rising dissatisfaction over issues including soaring housing costs, a growing wealth gap, an influx of mainlanders and a spate of political scandals would result in a turnout on the order of 2003, when up to 500,000 demonstrators filled the streets, angry over proposed anti-subversion legislation. But Monday’s crowd was substantially smaller, thanks in part to inclement weather brought on by an approaching typhoon.
Under a 50-year arrangement known as “one country, two systems,” Hong Kong has a separate political and legal framework from the mainland and is supposed to be self-governing except on matters such as national security, defense and foreign relations.
It is run by a chief executive who is akin to a mayor but is not elected directly by the city’s 7 million residents; instead, the position is selected by a group of 1,200 business and political elites inclined toward pro-Beijing candidates.
And though 40 Hong Kong legislators are elected directly by voters in geographic districts, 30 others are picked by “functional constituencies” made up of representatives of business sectors such as law, tourism and insurance. Critics say the arrangement helps stack the legislature with representatives sympathetic to mainland interests.
Beijing has said Hong Kong residents will be able to pick their chief executive no earlier than 2017, and the full legislature by 2020. But no clear steps to make that a reality have been taken, and democracy advocates say planning must begin soon if the 2017 date is to be met.
To press the matter, activists have begun organizing for an Occupy-style movement that would take over the central business district next summer, a prospect that has alarmed authorities.
In a speech commemorating the 1997 handover Monday, Chief Executive C.Y. Leung pledged to launch consultations on direct elections at “an appropriate juncture,” urging people “holding divergent views” to “set aside their differences and seek consensus ... in an accommodating, pragmatic and peaceful manner.” Backers of Leung shouted, “C.Y., we support you.”
But a sizable contingent of residents are dissatisfied with Leung and the local government in general.
They are chafing at what they see as mainland authorities’ interference in areas such as education policy; an attempt at introducing a patriotism curriculum last year, for example, was widely denounced as brainwashing.
Others are frustrated with issues including soaring housing costs, which many blame on an influx of buyers from the mainland, and a shortage of baby formula due to runs on the product from mainlanders.
A mid-June poll by Hong Kong University found that 51 percent of residents said they were dissatisfied with the government, and 55 percent gave a vote of “no confidence” to Leung.
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Leung has come under withering criticism for his handling of a number of issues and has faced flagrant disrespect at public events. At a college graduation ceremony in which he appeared last week, dozens of students held up signs saying “real democracy now” and others turned their back to him as they crossed the stage; one young man even bent over and made a gesture as if he were dropping his trousers.
On Monday, a number of marchers carried banners with cartoons depicting Leung as naked or a robot, while others hoisted signs saying “C.Y. Leung, step down!”
But Leung was hardly the only issue on protesters’ minds; some held banners expressing concern for a seahorse threatened by a proposed development, others flew flags voicing support for same-sex marriage.
A number carried signs calling for the release of Chinese dissidents including Liu Xiaobo, the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize winner who in 2009 was jailed for 11 years on subversion charges after he organized a petition against one-party rule.
Tensions and concerns about media freedom had been rising in the city ahead of Monday’s march.
Thousands of copies of the Apple Daily — a publication that has urged Leung’s ouster and pushed for greater democracy in the city — were burned over the weekend at a distribution depot. Last month, a man driving a stolen car rammed the front gate of the house of the newspaper’s publisher, Jimmy Lai, and left an ax and a machete in the driveway before fleeing.
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As Monday’s march petered out around 5 p.m., the Hong Kong government issued a statement saying it would listen to the people’s views “in a humble manner.”
“The government will continue its endeavor to tackle various problems including those related to economic development, housing, poverty, aging society and the environment,” authorities added.
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The current atmosphere of discontent has stirred nostalgia for the days of British rule among some Hong Kongers. Groups of marchers on Monday waved the colonial flag, which features the Union Jack.
“For local people, it is frightening to see so many mainland people here. They take jobs for 30 (Hong Kong) dollars an hour,” Rico Lee, a 39-year-old Hong Kong resident who works in the IT industry, said in an interview last month. “Their culture is completely different from ours. Some people now are nostalgic for the British period. I can understand. We don’t have total democracy here. And every year we have a little bit less.”
(Staff writer Barbara Demick and Tommy Yang and Nicole Liu in the Times’ Beijing bureau contributed to this report.)
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