Thousands march for universal suffrage in Hong Kong

HONG KONG — Despite torrential rain and warnings of a major typhoon, tens of thousands of people took to the streets of Hong Kong on Monday to demand that Beijing honor its pledge and grant the city-state direct democracy by 2017.

July 1, a holiday, marks the anniversary of the former British colony's handover to mainland China. For local activists it has become an annual day of protest — an occasion both to defend and demonstrate the civil liberties that make Hong Kong distinct from the mainland.

Many protesters waved signs calling for "Direct suffrage now!" and "People's power!" Others called for the resignation of Chief Executive CY Leung, who has been embroiled in scandal since he took office last year. Like all chief executives before him, he was chosen by a select committee of electors that includes fewer than 1 percent of Hong Kong's residents. 

"I have participated in this rally for more than 10 years," said one protester, David Li. "I feel like this year, people have more specific goals for the rally than in the past. We particularly demand that CY Leung step down, and that universal suffrage is realized."

More from GlobalPost: How the US-China dust-up harms Americans

A recent poll by the University of Hong Kong put Leung's approval rating at less than 47 percent, far below his predecessor's 67 percent approval rating at the same point in his term. 

Stephen Choi, who has attended the march since 1997, said that since the handover he has become more and more concerned about the direction in which Hong Kong is headed. Poverty is increasing, he said, and the elderly are suffering from a lack of social security.

"We enjoy less freedom, too," he said. "In the past, there weren't so many police around when we demonstrated, but now there are police are all over the place."

Local authorites released a statement following the protest stating that "the government will implement universal suffrage for the chief executive election in 2017 strictly in accordance with the provisions of the Basic Law and the relevant decisions of the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress."

Even if the reform proceeds, activists fear that Beijing will seek to control who can stand in 2017. The head of the law committee of China's parliament, Qiao Xiaoyang, said in March that any would-be chief executives must "love China and love Hong Kong," and that anyone who confronted Beijing would not be acceptable.

Monday's march also included students waving colonial-style flags and a huge, Falun Gong-organized marching band, according to the website HongWrong