Hong Kong's China Protest Is Biggest Of Decade

Mark Stone, China Correspondent
Hong Kong's China Protest Is Biggest Of Decade

Demonstrators have marched through Hong Kong, protesting against the growing influence of China's central government.

The march in the semi-autonomous region takes place annually on July 1, marking the anniversary of the handover of Hong Kong from Britain to China.

However this year's gathering, the largest in a decade, is widely seen as an important gauge of the shifting public mood among Hong Kongers.

Organisers say nearly 500,000 people took part, while police claim 92,000 "set off for the march" but they have not given a figure for how many joined en route.

Under the umbrella of a movement calling itself Occupy Central , the pro-democracy marchers pledged to bring the Central district of Hong Kong island to a standstill.

They broadly represent a growing number of people who are worried that Beijing's communist government is eroding their political and social freedoms.

"We have long been fighting for true democracy in Hong Kong," Edward Chin, an island financier told Sky News.

"We want fair competition, we want fair play and we want true democracy and we don't want Beijing to exert premature influence over Hong Kong's people. They should honour (the) 'one-country, two-systems' (principle)."

Hong Kong was relinquished as a British colony and handed back to China in 1997.

Under the agreement, China pledged to govern Hong Kong under a principle of "one country, two systems" giving the territory "a high degree of autonomy". It has its own legal system and the freedom of assembly and expression are protected.

But, nearly two decades on, there are concerns that Beijing's hand is increasingly at the levers in Hong Kong.

"We are concerned about unfair competition and about freedom of speech and freedom of press. We have seen it deteriorate in the last two years since CY Leung became the Chief Executive of Hong Kong," Mr Chin said.

Central to the concerns of the marchers is the process by which the political leader in Hong Kong is chosen. Known as the chief executive, the leader is currently elected by a 1,200-member committee.

The mini-constitution of Hong Kong states that, ultimately, the leader will be chosen by "universal suffrage". Beijing has promised direct elections by 2017 but only from a list of candidates selected by a committee.

Over the past 10 days, nearly 800,000 people voted in an unofficial referendum expressing their desire to choose their leader. Beijing called the referendum "illegal".

Speaking at a flag-raising ceremony to mark the 17th anniversary of the handover, Chief Executive CY Leung said the Hong Kong government "will do our utmost to forge a consensus" on implementing universal suffrage but added that stability in the territory was essential.

"Only by maintaining Hong Kong's stability can we sustain our economic prosperity," he said.

There are growing signs of a widening wealth gap in the city of 7.2 million people.

Young people have seen their average yearly income drop. Many claim the political and financial system is working against them as an influx of wealthy mainland Chinese gain an unfair advantage, dominating the economy as well as the political system.

"Hong Kong should not just be ruled by the ruling class and the special privileged few," Mr Chin told Sky News.

"We are losing, at a very quick pace, what we were promised -  the two systems, one-country policy signed by China and Britain. The UK, who ruled Hong Kong for over 145 years, should look into the situation more because now in Hong Kong, people have lost the confidence in mainland China," he said.