Policemen keep vigil in front of a luxury shop in the central district as demonstrators march during a "pro-democracy" rally in Hong Kong on Tuesday. Photo: AFP
Hundreds of thousands of Hong Kong residents took to the streets on Tuesday in an annual "pro-democracy" rally while authorities celebrated the 17th anniversary of the region's return to China.
Local business people said that the rally has evolved into a playground for radical groups, and many residents expressed their resentment of extreme activities such as the Occupy Central movement.
The aim of the march, which follows a 10-day unofficial "referendum" on how Hong Kong's next chief executive should be elected, is said to be "fighting for true universal suffrage," said one of its main organizers, Yeung Ching-yin of the Civil Human Rights Front.
The size of the protest or number of votes cast will not change the central government's stance, which remains firmly on the side of universal suffrage in Hong Kong, said Zhang Xiaoming, director of the Liaison Office of the Central People's Government in Hong Kong, on Tuesday at a ceremony marking the establishment of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR).
Most of the business groups at the celebration opposed the pan-democrats' Occupy Central proposal and civil referendum, and expressed their view that the rally, begun in 1997 as a platform for ordinary Hong Kong people to participate in politics and voice their demands, has become a playground for some radical groups.
"Hong Kong needs stability first before it achieves democracy and prosperity. Inciting protests will only contribute to the unstable political situation in Hong Kong," said a man surnamed Lam, a member of the Hong Kong Hainan Commercial Association.
Protesters began gathering at Victoria Park around 2 pm, setting off two hours later on a route that took them through some of Hong Kong's densest commercial districts.
The Global Times noted that many of the protesters adopted a casual attitude, viewing the march as a part of their normal political participation.
"I've come to this protest every year since 2003," a 65 year-old man surnamed Mok told the Global Times. "It is a traditional way for us Hong Kong people to express our hope for democracy, as well as a reflection of our democracy."
Another man surnamed Chan, who joined the march with his wife and son, told the Global Times that he also voted in the civil referendum, but he did not agree with the Occupy movement.
"They should at least wait for the government's proposal and not push the authorities," said Chan.
Dissatisfied employees, animal rights activists and many other groups also used the march as an opportunity to advance their causes.
The referendum, which ended on Sunday, saw Hong Kong residents cast nearly 790,000 votes for three different proposals, all of which called for public nomination to play a role in electing Hong Kong's next leader in 2017.
Yeung estimated that over half million people took part in the protest, while police said that about 92,000 had set out from central Hong Kong's Victoria Park by 7:30 pm.
Hong Kong Chief Executive CY Leung said Tuesday that Hong Kong should cherish its hard-won economic success, adding that Hong Kong SAR government will strive to advance constitutional reform.
Two student organizations participating in the march came to a halt after arriving in Hong Kong's central commercial district and began a sit-in which they described as a rehearsal for Occupy Central.
Chow Yong-kang, spokesperson of the Hong Kong Federation of Students, said he hoped more citizens will join the student movement.
By 10 pm around 2,000 people, mostly students, had joined the sit-in, which was not approved by police. Chow said that the demonstrators would leave on Wednesday morning, while police said they would begin clearing the area at about 4 am.
Meanwhile, members of Scholarism, another student organization, surrounded the office building of current Hong Kong chief executive CY Leung. Wong Chi-fung, the organization's central figure, said they were there to persuade Leung to accept public nomination of the region's chief executive.
However, Occupy Central with Peace and Love, the original organizer of the Occupy Central movement and the driving force behind the electoral referendum, believe that now is not the time to resort to occupation tactics.
Tam Yiu-chung, a Hong Kong Legislative Council (LegCo) member, told the Global Times previously that pan-democratic parties see the annual protest as a good opportunity to promote themselves.
Groups such as Civic Party, People Power, Democratic Party and Civil Human Rights Front have deployed their members to collect funds along the marching route. Flags promoting pro-democracy LegCo members could also be seen along the route.
Most of the protesters Global Times interviewed agreed that some slogans, like "Make CY Leung resign," "Re-form a new government" and "A totally independent Hong Kong" were inciting and radical.
The march proceeded peacefully except for several attempts by some protesters to break the fences cordoning off several lanes, which police halted immediately.
Cathy Wong contributed to this story