HONG KONG — Tens of thousands of Hong Kongers took to the streets Wednesday to renew their call for full democracy but the turnout was noticeably lower than in recent years, reflecting an impasse after a year of bitter battles over political reform.
Thinner crowds at the protest highlight the uncertain direction for the democracy movement after accomplishing its immediate goal last month of blocking the government's Beijing-backed restricted election plan.
Police lined the route of the protest, held on a public holiday marking Hong Kong's handover from British to Chinese rule.
Public appetite for more street protests is also diminished after tens of thousands of student-led protesters blocked streets in key districts for 79 days last year to demand free elections for the southern Chinese city's top leader. The movement caught the world's attention but did not result in any meaningful change.
"Maybe some of them feel tired and stressed from all these fights and arguments so maybe they want to take a rest," said Drake Leung, a 27-year-old information technology worker attending the rally. "The package is already vetoed so there's no real clear reason to come out."
Protesters gathered at Victoria Park to march through sweltering skyscraper-lined streets to city government headquarters. Many carried yellow umbrellas, a nod to last year's "Umbrella Movement" protesters and their favored method of defending against police pepper spray.
Many chanted for the city's unpopular Beijing-backed leader, Leung Chun-ying, to step down. Some carried banners calling for genuine universal suffrage or for the downfall of China's Communist Party, while others waved Hong Kong's colonial-era flag featuring a Union Jack or placards demanding the city's independence.
Some 48,000 people turned out, according to Daisy Chan of protest organizer Civil Human Rights Front, while police said there were 19,650 at the peak. That's the lowest since 2008 and a fraction of the 510,000 that organizers estimated for last year's event, which also saw more than 500 people arrested after an overnight standoff.
The Beijing-backed plan that was defeated by Hong Kong lawmakers last month required all candidates be vetted by China's leadership, which activists criticized as "sham democracy" and a betrayal of Communist leaders' promise to eventually grant the city universal suffrage.
Beijing and Hong Kong officials say future leaders will continue to be picked by a panel of mostly pro-Beijing elites and they will now focus on economic issues rather than restarting the political reform process.
"Hong Kong people now have experienced the Umbrella Movement last year and are trying to think of other more progressive ways to express their views," said Eddie Chan, vice convener of Civil Human Rights Front.
Ahead of the rally, a small group protested by burning a picture of Leung outside a morning flag raising ceremony attended by Hong Kong and Beijing officials. In a speech, Leung said judging from the experience of some European countries, "democratic systems and procedures are no panacea for economic and livelihood issues."
On China's mainland, a nationalist newspaper run by the Communist Party called the protesters "losers."
"It must be thrilling to shout those slogans, but they are no different than making some wailing sounds on the square or demanding that every Hong Kong dollar be exchanged for 100 U.S. dollars," the Global Times said in an editorial. "They are simply some rotten slogans that have been shouted in vain."
Beijing took control of the former British colony on July 1, 1997, but allowed it to keep its own financial and legal system and civil liberties unseen on the mainland, such as freedom of speech and protest. The holiday has become a traditional day to protest government policies and to call for democracy.
On July 1, 2003, half a million people took to the streets to protest proposed anti-subversion legislation. The size of the rally startled Beijing and led to the eventual resignation of then-leader Tung Chee-hwa.
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