BEIJING — Tens of thousands of people took to the streets in Hong Kong on Sunday to demand the right to vote for all their leaders and that the process of democratization be speeded up.
Organizers estimated the turnout at 250,000, though police put the number at 63,000. Either way, the number was considered surprising, given that the former British colony's economy is on the rebound, unemployment is down and people are generally satisfied with the government.
What drew the demonstrators out was a package of electoral reforms pushed by Hong Kong's chief executive and backed by Beijing that does not give a clear timetable as to when Hong Kong voters will be given universal suffrage.
Under the current system, the city's top leader is endorsed by Beijing and selected by a committee of 800 electors. Only half of the legislature's 60 members are directly elected by the public. The other half is voted on by interest groups that usually favor Beijing.
Hong Kong's chief executive, Donald Tsang, proposes to double the number of electors and add 10 seats to the Legislative Council, of which five would be directly elected. That, the pro-democracy activists say, is not good enough.
"The Hong Kong people want to send the message to Beijing that we don't believe such a reform package represents any meaningful progress," said Joseph Cheng, a political scientist at the City University of Hong Kong. "They want to know when are we going to have general elections instead of elections controlled by Chinese authorities with results acceptable to Beijing."
Hong Kong never enjoyed full democracy under British rule. After the former colony returned to Chinese control in 1997 under the "one country, two systems" formula, the region was supposed to enjoy a wider degree of autonomy and eventually hold direct elections. But Beijing has been reluctant to grant Hong Kong that freedom for fear of losing control of the wealthy economic hub.
In July 2003, Hong Kong activists rattled Beijing by holding a march that attracted half a million people angry about a host of issues, including a Beijing-backed anti-subversion law and the Hong Kong government's handling of a then-sagging economy and the SARS epidemic.
Though Sunday's protest was smaller, observers said it nevertheless sent a strong signal to Beijing that democracy was an issue still dear to Hong Kong's heart.
"The key is this was a oneissue march. That's a lot of people to come out for such a narrowly focused issue," said Michael DeGolyer, director of the Hong Kong Transitional Project at the Hong Kong Baptist University. "What they want is a negotiation with Beijing. What they got is this package, take it or leave it."
The rally also could signal the end of the honeymoon period for Tsang, a relatively popular figure chosen by Beijing this year to replace his beleaguered predecessor, Tung Chee-hwa. If the reform package fails to pass in the Hong Kong legislature this month, Tsang could lose credibility with both the Beijing authorities and the Hong Kong public.
"Beijing will think he can't deliver despite his popularity," said Cheng, the political scientist. "The Hong Kong people will not believe him because he's simply toeing Beijing's line and doesn't reflect Hong Kong people's desires."
Observers noted that Tsang was caught between the competing demands of Hong Kong residents and Beijing leaders, with little room to move -- a point he echoed Sunday.
"I am 60 years of age. I certainly want to see universal suffrage taking place in Hong Kong in my time," Tsang said in a news conference. "There is little scope for me to change.
"But I wish within the little scope I have, I will see what I can do to perfect the package," he added. "But it will be on [a] limited scale, and it will not affect the timetable of a resolution of this matter in the Legislative Council."