Tens of thousands of Hong Kongers took to the streets yesterday to push for democratic rights amid a slumping economy and rising unemployment on the 12th anniversary of the former British colony’s return to Chinese rule.
Demonstrators carried signs reading “Promote Democracy!” and chanted, “Return power to the people!” as they marched from the territory’s Victoria Park to government headquarters.
“I want democracy in Hong Kong. I want somebody who truly represents me,” said 54-year-old Sandy Lam who recently lost her job at a textile factory.
She complained that Hong Kong’s policies were failing to help her and her family.
Since its handover to China on July 1, 1997 — after 156 years of British rule — Hong Kong has largely retained its Western-style civil liberties, including press freedom and the right to hold public protests. But its people still cannot directly elect the city’s chief executive or all legislative members.
Police said at least 26,000 people joined the march when it started in mid-afternoon. Organizers claimed the crowd had grown to 76,000 as the rally continued into the evening.
The rally — led by pro-democracy lawmakers and activists — has become an annual event since 2003 to press for democracy and vent dissatisfaction with the government.
Turnout was relatively low last year because of a rise in national pride because of the Olympics and a still-strong economy, but the downturn and rising unemployment stoked anger this time around.
Battered by the economic crisis, Hong Kong has been struggling through recession since last year, with many locals saying the government’s relief measures have fallen short.
Hundreds of civil servants and government contract workers promised to protest as organized groups for the first time to demand better conditions and pay — signs of public frustration that experts say could alarm Beijing.
“We’re very angry with the contract terms that we’re having,” said Tse Tin-wing, chairman of an association of contract postal workers. “We have no choice but take to the street to express our anger.”