- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 1, 2004

HONG KONG — Hundreds of thousands of people marched through downtown Hong Kong yesterday, demanding full democracy and venting anger at China’s communist leaders for denying them the right to elect their government directly.

About 530,000 people participated, protest organizers said, although the police count was 200,000 partway through the rally, which lasted a little more than five hours.

“Only democracy can save Hong Kong,” said Cheuk Kuang, 65. “The communist government is intervening too much in Hong Kong, and it’s trying to shut down all opposition voices.”

The march came on the seventh anniversary of the former British colony’s transfer to Chinese sovereignty and a year after a protest by a half-million people stunned China’s leaders and forced Hong Kong’s government to withdraw an anti-subversion bill that many had viewed as a threat to freedoms.

Marchers filled all four lanes of a major downtown thoroughfare, peacefully chanting slogans, displaying signs and waving inflatable dolls of their unpopular leader, Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa, as they made their way toward the fenced-off Hong Kong government headquarters.

Mr. Tung later said he had listened to the people’s complaints and understood their hopes for full democracy. He held out no prospects for quick change, however, saying any political reforms must be “gradual and orderly” as China has insisted.

Tempers have flared here since Beijing ruled in April that ordinary citizens cannot elect Mr. Tung’s successor in 2007 or all lawmakers in 2008.

But the mood seemed less angry than last year. Thousands of the protesters were fanning themselves on the hottest day of the year, with temperatures hitting 94. Police said 42 persons were hospitalized for heat exhaustion or other problems.

Washington said it respected the Hong Kong people’s right to seek political reforms.

“It is up to the Hong Kong people and the government of Hong Kong to determine the pace and scope of democratization,” said Susan N. Stevenson, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Consulate.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Zhang Qiyue said in Beijing that her government is “resolutely opposed to foreign interference” and added that Hong Kong’s political system gives its citizens “real and unprecedented democracy.”

Mr. Tung and other dignitaries stood at attention in the morning as the Chinese and Hong Kong flags were raised to mark the anniversary of the territory’s transfer. Outside, a dozen activists tried to carry a mock black coffin toward the ceremony, but were held back by police.

A mainland visitor, 30-year-old accountant Bob Zhuang, watched the early morning demonstration for a few minutes and called the activists “stupid.”

“Should such a protest really be allowed in this territory?” Mr. Zhuang asked, waving a red Chinese flag.

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