Mon, Apr 12, 2004 - Page 1 News List

Thousands demand full democracy in Hong Kong march

AP , HONG KONG

Thousands of angry citizens marched yesterday to Beijing's representative office in Hong Kong, demanding full democracy and calling on the territory's unpopular leader to quit.

Hong Kongers are clamoring for the right to elect their chief executive and all lawmakers, and a crowd estimated at 15,000 people protested against a ruling by China's most powerful legislative committee that political reforms here must be approved in advance by Beijing.

After a brief standoff with police, the demonstrators were allowed to file past the rear entrance of the Chinese government's liaison office, dropping off boxes of letters that urged Beijing to reverse its ruling and allow universal suffrage.

The silhouettes of more than a dozen people inside the Chinese office could be seen looking out through shaded windows, but a receptionist told reporters no one was available for comment.

"We don't want to overthrow the central government," said Rockly Lam, a 48-year-old warehouse manager who joined the march. "We're just asking for rights we deserve."

Rally organizer Jackie Hung said 15,000 people had turned out to voice opposition to the ruling issued last Tuesday by the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress. Police declined to provide a crowd estimate.

Waving inflatable dolls of Hong Kong Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa (董建華), the crowd chanted "step down."

The Standing Committee issued a binding interpretation of Hong Kong constitutional law that said Beijing must give advance approval for any changes in the way the territory's leader and lawmakers are selected. The demonstrators contend that instead of interpreting the law, Beijing had muscled in and amended it without consulting Hong Kong.

Full democracy is set out as a goal in Hong Kong's mini-constitution, the Basic Law, but there is no timetable and critics charge that officials are stalling to hold back pro-democracy forces viewed as troublemakers by Beijing.

Tung was selected by an 800-member committee loyal to Beijing and is viewed by many here as a puppet to the central government who favors the territory's tycoons over its middle class.

Ordinary voters choose some lawmakers and will directly elect 30 of the 60 seats in the Legislative Council in September, up from 24 last time. The rest are picked by special interest groups that tend to side with Beijing and big business.

Emboldened by a march last July 1 by 500,000 people that forced Tung to withdraw an anti-subversion bill viewed as a threat to freedom, many people are now demanding full democracy.

"China should go along with the historical trend and give us more democracy," said Gary Fan, an office worker.

When Hong Kong was returned from British to Chinese sovereignty in 1997, it was guaranteed a great deal of autonomy for at least 50 years, but critics say Beijing's ruling overstepped the bounds of the Basic Law and reneged on that promise.

"China fixed the law to its liking. How can they do that?" said another demonstrator, Kong Leung, who is 56 and unemployed.

Beijing says its ruling was legal and necessary to set the proper guidelines for the territory's political evolution.

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