Hong Kong (AsiaNews/Agencies) Tens of thousands of people took to the streets of central Hong Kong this afternoon to call for full democracy, on the ninth anniversary of the return of the territory from Great Britain to China. Before the march started, in Victoria Park, Cardinal Joseph Zen, bishop of Hong Kong, held a moment of prayer which Catholics participated in.
Police said not more than 20,000 people attended the march but the river of people swelled as it flowed through the streets of the centre, bearing banners and chanting slogans. Anson Chan, one of the most renowned and respected political figures in the territory, took part in the march for the first time
Since 1997, Hong Kong has been governed according to the "one country, two systems" principle, which should grant the territory wide autonomy. But Beijing has often intervened in Hong Kong's decisions, to the extent of taking on itself all political reforms.
In 2003, the march drew more than half a million people of all social classes, who turned up to criticize the government of Tung Chee-hwa, a lack of freedoms and a poor economic situation. Last year, attendance dropped to around 20,000.
With the economy improving, many analysts predicted that this year's march would draw only a few thousand participants. But the presence of Anson Chan renewed the lustre and credibility of the democracy struggle. "The fact that the economy is now on a strong path does not mean that the voice and the aspiration for universal suffrage and for democracy is any less," Chan told reporters. "I would say that without democracy one cannot really have sustained economic growth."
During the ceremony to commemorate the return to the motherland, Beijing politicians and the chief executive of Hong Kong underlined the positive sign of economic growth after years of crisis. One of the people who joined the march said: "Of course the Heng Seng (stock market) index has reached new highs, but for Hong Kong people, things are not improving."
Addressing a prayer meeting before the march, Cardinal Zen, one of the most resolute champions for democracy, called on all to persevere in the quest for their rights. "If we persist, our aim will be met."
Brian Fong, a bank employee who took part in the march, criticised Chief Executive Donald Tsang "for only listening to his political masters in Beijing and not the people of Hong Kong."
In the morning, Donald Tsang presided over the official commemoration at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre, exalting the "one country, two systems" principle. In the late morning, perhaps to counter the march for democracy, a festival parade was held with displays of martial arts by the People's Liberation Army and traditional Chinese dance. Police claimed that around 40,000 people turned up.