HONG KONG (Reuters) - Tens of thousands braved typhoon rains in Hong Kong on Monday to demand China live up to its promise to allow fully democratic elections there in 2017 amid mounting fears of increased meddling by Beijing's Communist Party leaders.
The former British colony returned to Chinese rule on July 1, 1997, with the promise of universal suffrage as an "ultimate aim" in its mini-constitution, making it potentially the first place on Chinese soil to enjoy fully democratic elections.
Protesters marched and chanted, undeterred by the lashing rain as the march began, some carrying British colonial Hong Kong flags and pro-democracy banners along with umbrellas.
Organizers of the protest said 430,000 people turned up, while police gave an estimate of 66,000.
Younger activists have become increasingly politicized. Surveys show they identify themselves more as Hong Kong citizens than Chinese nationals - a trend that alarms Beijing, which is eager for the city to show more "patriotism" to the motherland.
Despite China's pledge to allow a direct poll for the city's leader in 2017, recent signs from senior Chinese officials have raised concern Beijing may somehow try to rig the rules to screen out opposition candidates from taking part.
"I'm very pessimistic about universal suffrage in 2017," said Brian Tam, a 21-year-old student waving a Union Jack.
"The Chinese government says they will select candidates, which is not really the true definition of universal suffrage".
Qiao Xiaoyang, the chairman of the law committee of China's parliament, said in March that any candidates for the 2017 election must love Hong Kong and that those who confronted Beijing would not be acceptable, in remarks seen to be targeting the city's opposition pro-democracy politicians.
SIGNS OF TENSION
Even before thousands massed in a downtown park for Monday's rally, there were unusual signs of tension elsewhere.
Executives of the popular Apple Daily, known for its anti-China, pro-democracy stance, said tens of thousands of copies of two editions of the newspaper had been torched in recent days by masked men targeting distribution points.
The home of the paper's owner, Jimmy Lai, was rammed by a car. The assailants left a machete, an axe and a threatening message in the driveway. Lai's group has offered a HK$1 million ($128,000) reward for tracking down those responsible.
Activist lawmaker Leung Kwok-hung said he was threatened by an anonymous phone caller on Saturday who told him to avoid the march or "face the consequences", but he still joined the protest, shouting: "Universal suffrage now."
The march is held every year, but this year's event is being seen as a forerunner to a wider campaign of choreographed civil disobedience over the next year.
The Occupy Central movement is demanding firm government proposals towards 2017 and is planning to shut down Hong Kong's financial district with a mass rally on July 1 next year - threats sparking alarm in Beijing.
"We can see for sure that people are committed," said Benny Tai, one of the organizers of Occupy Central.
The march, which also saw thousands rally for a medley of other social causes including poverty alleviation and press freedom, took place with pro-Beijing leader Leung Chun-ying battling slumping popularity ratings and a series of scandals involving his cabinet.
A poll on Friday showed nearly half of Hong Kong residents had no confidence his performance would improve in the coming year.
Leung said Hong Kong would begin consultations on deciding the exact scope of the 2017 elections "at an appropriate time".
"Working to implement universal suffrage in the 2017 chief executive election is key to the current government," he said.
The director of Beijing's Liaison office in Hong Kong, Zhang Xiaoming, said Hong Kong needed to be "harmonious and rational" but said the protests were a sign that Hong Kong still enjoyed "full freedoms and rights".