Hong Kong (AsiaNews) - Almost 200,000 people (according to early results) took part in today's rally for freedom and democracy in Hong Kong, shouting slogans in favour of universal suffrage and demanding the resignation of the Chief Executive CY Leung, accused by many of being "too close" to the government of mainland China.
According to police, who deployed 4,000 agents in riot gear along the route of the march, some 92,000 people took part in the event. Organisers counted instead half a million.
The 1 July march traditionally sets off from Victoria Park and runs to Beijing's Liaison Office in the autonomous region. The event has become a tradition after Britain handed over Hong Kong to mainland China on 1 July 1997, as pro-democracy activists began to take action to show their dissatisfaction with regards to local social and political issues.
In 2003, more than 500,000 people joined the march in order to stop a proposed security law under Article 23 of Hong Kong's Basic Law, and demand the resignation of certain senior public officials.
Since then, turnout has declined but never dipped below 150,000. Yet, for Beijing, the march is even more worrisome than the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre because it traditionally comes with demands to change the territory along democratic lines.
Organised by the Civil Human Rights Front, a coalition of various groups that include Catholic organisations, the march has sought greater independence from the mainland as well as an end to functional constituencies, which have led to a widening socioeconomic gap, in favour of the direct election of the territory's legislative council and chief executive.
This year's rally comes two days after an unofficial vote was held among Hong Kongers on universal suffrage. Almost 800,000 people voted in what for organisers was a way to vet what people think.
The referendum was supposed to be held on 20-22 June, but the most sophisticated and powerful hacker attack according to the authorities against Occupy Central's server forced organisers to extend voting to 29 June.
Hong Kong's Bishop Emeritus Card Joseph Zen on 20 June ended an 84-km march across Hong Kong to encourage citizens to participate in the referendum. Card John Tong, the current bishop, also expressed his support for the right of the people to give their views on democracy.
All the groups that have come forward have embraced universal suffrage for the election of the Chief Executive, an idea that Beijing defines as "inconsistent" and "contrary to the Basic Law," Hong Kong's British-made constitution.
The most voted proposal was presented by the Alliance for Real Democracy. Under its three-track plan the public, the nominating committee, as well as political parties, would be allowed to put forward candidates.
Speaking to the huge crowd gathered at Victoria Park, organisers challenged the government to try to ignore even this cry for democracy, floating the idea that new, more impressive rallies might take place if the governments of Hong Kong and mainland China do not allow the introduction of universal suffrage before the deadline.
Hong Kong leader CY Leung spoke earlier at a ceremony to mark the 17th anniversary of the former British colony's return to China.
"Only by maintaining Hong Kong's stability can we sustain our economic prosperity. Only by sustaining Hong Kong's prosperity can we improve people's livelihood," Mr Leung said.