Hong Kong: Pro-democracy protesters gathered for a mass march in Hong Kong on Tuesday, with one burning a photograph of the city`s leader and another calling for him to be sacked, in what could be the biggest challenge to Chinese Communist Party rule in more than a decade.
Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying said he and his government would do its "utmost" to move towards universal suffrage and urged calm after nearly 800,000 voted for full democracy in an unofficial referendum.
Security was tight in the former British colony with tension running high among pro-democracy activists and local and central authorities after the referendum highlighted the deep divide in the city of more than seven million people.
"I think in view of the vote of almost 800,000 people in favour of democracy, real democracy, not the type of democracy Beijing is suggesting, that today is probably going to be one of the most pivotal moments in the history of the democratic movement in Hong Kong," said lawyer Sean Leonard, from the think tank HKU International Institute of Financial Law. "It`s about time Beijing woke up."
Tensions flared early as activists from the League of Social Democrats burned a copy of a "white paper" released by Beijing last month that reasserted the central government`s authority over Hong Kong, enraging many in the city. The group burned a portrait of Leung.
Organisers of the annual July 1 rally, marking the day the territory returned to China in 1997, are expecting the largest turnout since 2003, when half a million people demonstrated against proposed anti-subversion laws which were later scrapped.
The rally will be dominated by pro-democracy groups which are demanding greater democracy in elections for the city`s leader, or chief executive, in 2017. Chinese authorities are keen to ensure that only pro-Beijing candidates make it on to the ballot. Democracy activists want the nomination process to be open to everyone.
Hong Kong returned to China with wide-ranging autonomy under the formula of "one country, two systems", allowing such protests to take place. But China bristles at open dissent, especially over sensitive political matters such as demands for universal suffrage and the annual June 4 vigil in Hong Kong remembering China`s crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Beijing in 1989.
A large banner on the side of a vehicle inside Victoria Park, where the rally starts, said: "Guard Hong Kong people`s autonomy," "don`t fear Chinese Communist Party`s threat," with others calling on Hong Kong`s leader to step down.
Another banner tied to a fence in the park said: "The Communist Party holding a fake general election in Hong Kong is not loving the country, not loving Hong Kong," while another mocked the white paper, which says loving China is a basic requirement for the city`s administrators.
Other groups wore T-shirts calling for real elections.
Several groups have indicated they will stage overnight vigils after the march in a possible prelude to a planned campaign to shut down the city`s financial district.
Speaking at a flag-raising ceremony to mark the 17th anniversary of Hong Kong`s return to China, Chief Executive Leung said the government was trying hard to forge a consensus on political reform.
"The (special administrative region) government and I will do our utmost to forge a consensus in the community and work together towards the goal of implementing universal suffrage for the chief executive election on schedule and in accordance with the law," Leung said at Golden Bauhinia Square, where ceremonies for the handover of Hong Kong were held in 1997.
Many Hong Kong people are concerned that Beijing is playing an increasing role in the city`s civil and political life since the handover.
"We can see that Beijing is eroding the autonomy of Hong Kong, and we want to show we don`t fear central government oppression," said Johnson Yeung, convenor of the Civil Human Rights Front, one of the organisers of the march.
Occupy Central with Love and Peace, the group behind the unofficial referendum, urged voters to come out and march to show their commitment to universal suffrage.
The group has threatened to lock down the Central area of Hong Kong, home to some of Asia`s biggest companies and banks, as part of its campaign.
It has ruled out taking action to blockade the central business district on Tuesday, saying it "wouldn`t be the right moment". A decision would be taken later, depending on the government response, it said.