Thousands of Hong Kong democracy campaigners took to the streets on the first day of the new year on Friday to call for universal suffrage and the release of jailed Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo (劉曉波).
Chanting slogans and holding placards, protesters marched through the city center to the Central Government Liaison Office — responsible for ties with Beijing — watched over by hundreds of police officers and attracting the attention of big crowds of bystanders.
Organizers said there were as many as 30,000 protesters, although the police gave an estimate of only 4,600 people. More than 100 activists scuffled with the officers outside the Liaison Office about four hours after the march started, as the rest of the procession dispersed peacefully.
“I don’t want fake democracy. I want genuine universal suffrage,” Lee Cheuk-yan (李卓人), lawmaker and general secretary of the Confederation of Trade Unions, chanted through a loudspeaker.
The Hong Kong government last month unveiled a proposal to increase the sizes of both the legislature and the committee responsible for electing the city’s chief executive. But the plan fell short of the expectations of pro-democracy politicians, who have urged the government to introduce universal suffrage in 2012.
Beijing has indicated that the vote “may be implemented for the Chief Executive in 2017 and the Legislative Council in 2020.”
“The large turnout today has sent the strongest signal to Beijing that we need a clear road map for universal suffrage,” said Wong Yuk-man (黃毓民), another lawmaker and a leader of the League of Social Democrats.
Protesters also urged Chinese authorities to release Liu, who was sentenced by a Beijing court a week ago to 11 years in prison for subversion, prompting strong condemnation from the international community, including the US, the EU and Canada.
The 54-year-old writer, previously jailed over the 1989 Tiananmen protests, was detained a year ago after co-authoring Charter 08, a bold manifesto calling for reform of China’s one-party communist system and protection of human rights.
Olivia Hu, a mainland student studying journalism in Hong Kong, said she felt it was her duty to join the march after learning about the ordeal of Liu from Hong Kong media.
“People on the mainland do not know what is happening. Had they gained access to the information we have in Hong Kong, I believe they would have felt the same as we do here,” she said.
Political commentator Ivan Choi noted that the finishing point of the march was different from previous major democracy protests, which usually ended at the Hong Kong government headquarters.
“The change indicates a shift of target from the local government to the Chinese government. This will heighten tension between the campaigners and Beijing,” Choi told broadcaster ATV.
Hong Kong was returned to Chinese rule in 1997, and has a separate Basic Law guaranteeing freedoms not available in China proper, including the right to protest.
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