Updated: 07/01/2013 15:45 | By Agence France-Presse

Thousands rally in Hong Kong call for democracy

Tens of thousands of protesters, some waving British colonial-era flags, marched in Hong Kong to denounce the city's leaders and demand universal suffrage on the 16th anniversary of the territory's handover to China.

Thousands rally in Hong Kong call for democracy

Members of the Hong Kong Civil Aid Service march during a flag-raising ceremony on July 1, 2013. China's national anthem blared as the Chinese and Hong Kong flags were raised outside the harbourside Convention Centre.

Tropical Storm Rumbia brought rain and strong winds as demonstrators bearing banners saying "Democracy now" and "Down with the Chinese Communist Party" started off from the city's Victoria Park to march to the financial district of Central.

The annual rally for democracy comes amid concerns in the southern Chinese city that Beijing is increasingly meddling in local affairs.

A widening income gap and soaring property prices have also contributed to the turnout as protesters focused their anger on unpopular Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying.

 "The main goal of the rally is to push through for genuine democracy and to ask for Leung Chun-ying to step down," Jackie Hung, of the Civil Human Rights Front, which is organising the march, told AFP.

The July 1 rally comes after a survey published by the Hong Kong University found that only 33 percent of Hong Kongers took pride in being a Chinese national, the lowest level since 1998.

 Leung was appointed by a pro-Beijing committee last July, promising to improve governance and uphold the rule of law in the territory of seven million people.

He is charged with overseeing the transition to universal suffrage to appoint the city's leader, which was promised by 2017, though critics say little or no progress has been made on the issue as the deadline draws nearer.

"A major task of the current-term government is the implementation of universal suffrage for the chief executive election in 2017 in accordance with the provisions of the Basic Law," Leung said Monday.

"With the greatest sincerity and commitment, the SAR government will launch a consultation at an appropriate juncture," he added.

"People don't want elections with Chinese characteristics. The government should start consultation now so Hong Kong can have genuine democracy," protester Yeung Yuk, a 28-year-old social worker, told AFP.

According to a poll conducted by the Hong Kong University released last week, Leung's approval rating stands at 46.2 percent.

Early Monday, China's national anthem blared as the Chinese and Hong Kong flags were raised outside the harbourside Convention Centre in a ceremony to mark the 16th anniversary of its handover to China.

 A small but rowdy protest took place near the ceremony with demonstrators burning a photograph of Leung and pushing and shoving with police.

"We can feel the anger from the people, people are disappointed with the integrity the chief executive C.Y. Leung and his government. Some officials have already resigned because of scandals and Leung did not fulfil the promise of improving livelihoods of Hong Kong people," said Wong Ho-yin, spokesman of the Civil Human Rights Front.

Residents are also unhappy about high property prices, which have surged in recent years due to record low interest rates and a flood of wealthy people from mainland China snapping up homes.

The former British colony was returned to Beijing in 1997 but has a semi-autonomous status, with guarantees of civil liberties such as the right to protest which are not found in mainland China.

Commentators on the mainland have become irritated by the increasing use of British-era colonial flags at recent protests, embarrassing Beijing.

"I feel that mainland intervention has reached a level that makes me feel Beijing wants to take over us. I learnt from media that the British governance was much better," 15-year-old student Yu Lap-kan told AFP, as he handed out paper colonial flags at the rally.

Last year, organisers said 400,000 took to the streets in a defiant reception for Leung hours after he was sworn in as chief executive in front of then Chinese president Hu Jintao whose visit took place amid intense security.

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