HONG KONG, Dec 4 (AFP): Tens of thousands of demonstrators took to the streets of Hong Kong Sunday, demanding the full democracy that was promised when Britain handed its crown-jewel colony back to China eight years ago.
Frustrated with the limited reforms proposed by the city's Beijing-appointed leader, Chief Executive Donald Tsang, marchers thronged the streets in the biggest show of public anger since he took office in June.
The protesters, urged to dress in black for the event, chanted slogans as they left downtown Victoria Park, brandishing banners denouncing an unpopular government bill to change the city's electoral system.
Initial estimates from organisers put turnout at Sunday's rally at about 70,000. Police figures were not immediately available.
Tsang's proposals would increase the size of the 800-strong committee of Beijing-backed elites that chooses the city's chief executive, and would also enlarge the 60-seat legislature.
But democrats say the proposals do not go far enough, and would amount to a step backward for the full democracy spelled out under the Hong Kong constitution, known as the Basic Law.
The provision gives no timeline for when it might be achieved. Democrats in the parliament, known as the Legislative Council, say they will veto the legislation unless Tsang offers a timetable for democratic reform.
"This is make-or-break time," said the pro-democracy movement's veteran leader Martin Lee. "The more people that come on the march, the more the government will have to do something about this."
"The governments (of Hong Kong and China) in the past week have done everything they can to keep the numbers down," Lee said.
A massive turnout could weaken Tsang's political base and rattle Communist party leaders in China, who fear reform here might weaken the city's economy and spark calls from change on the mainland.
More than half a million people flooded the streets of Hong Kong in July 2003, forcing the withdrawal of an unpopular anti-subversion law proposal and contributing to the resignation of former leader Tung Chee-hwa in March 2005.
Among the marchers Sunday was political heavyweight Anson Chan, the former deputy leader who even in retirement remains hugely popular.
"I feel there's a need to fight for democracy," Chan said, sharing her political thoughts with reporters for the first time.
"Everyone has a right to protest," she added, denying her decision to go public was a precursor to launching a new career in politics.
Before Sunday's march kicked off, local Catholic leader Bishop Joseph Zen led a prayer srevice during which he called on Hong Kong to heed the call for democracy.
"Tsang says his proposal is a big step towards full democracy: this is the biggest lie I have heard," Zen said.
"We are going sideways. We will go in circles with no direction and a dead end. We have to fight for universal suffrage."
Although Hong Kong is a semi-autonomous region of China, its leaders -- under a system negotiated by Britain and China -- are selected by a Beijing-backed committee and the legislature is half-elected, half-appointed.
The democracy issue has dogged Hong Kong politics since the 1997 handover of sovereignty from Britain to China, mainly because of the lack of timetable for democratic reform in the Basic Law.
Democrats and the governments of Hong Kong and China have feuded ever since over the timing of reform.
A big turnout Sunday could also damage Tsang's standing with his bosses in China.
The former civil service head's links to the former British colonial government and his Catholicism meant he was not China's ideal choice to as successor to Tung, but he got the job due to his huge popularity ratings.
Unfortunately for Tsang, that tide could be shifting -- pollsters put support for Sunday's march and backing for demands for a timetable to democracy at more than 60 percent.