* Pro-Beijing group says protest for "peace and no violence"
* End of month-long campaign against pro-democracy Occupy
* Protesters bused from as far away as Shenzhen to HK
By Clare Jim and Donny Kwok
HONG KONG, Aug 18 Tens of thousands gathered in
sweltering heat in Hong Kong on Sunday to protest against a
pro-democracy campaign that has threatened to shut down the
city's financial district, exposing a deepening rift over
political reforms in the former British colony.
The rise in tit-for-tat street protests between pro-Beijing
and pro-democracy groups underscores the challenges China faces
in shaping its vision for the political future of Hong Kong.
Backed largely by Beijing-friendly groups, the Alliance for
Peace and Democracy says it "desires peace and no violence" and
has denounced the pro-democracy Occupy Central movement that has
said it will lock down the centre of the city if Beijing does
not allow truly democratic elections for a leader in 2017.
"We want to show that the march doesn't have to be violent
and angry. It can be happy," said Robert Chow, a former Hong
Kong radio host and spokesman for the alliance.
Estimates of participants in recent protests vary widely,
with police saying Sunday's march drew 111,800 protesters,
exceeding an estimate of more than 98,000 for a pro-democracy
march on July 1.
The alliance had an initial estimate of 193,000 for Sunday's
march, while organisers of the July 1 rally estimated more than
500,000 took part, as both sides jockey to reflect popular
The University of Hong Kong put the number on Sunday at
between 79,000 and 88,000, about half the number it estimated
for the July 1 protest.
The all-day event that included an early morning run and
afternoon rally, which marked the end of a month-long signature
campaign by the alliance, was overshadowed by speculation that
some business groups had pressured people to take part.
In a centre-fold advertisement in Hong Kong's Ming Pao
newspaper on Monday, the Federation of Hong Kong Shenzhen
Associations said it had rallied more than 20,000 to take part
in the protest, which involved nearly 1,200 other groups.
One Chinese participant surnamed Chen, who is in her 60s,
said some people attended simply because they like running.
"I bumped into a friend. She's running with colleagues from
a property management firm. She said her firm encouraged her to
run and she took part because she likes running," she added.
More people, mostly groups of elderly, showed up later in
the morning to offer a flower "for peace", with different groups
wearing the same coloured T-shirts and hats.
After annual protests marking the anniversary of Hong Kong's
handover to China last month, hundreds of police started
removing protesters from the heart of Hong Kong's business
district as they tried to stage a sit-in after a rally to demand
"We do not support Occupy Central because it will bring
trouble and instability to the city," said retiree Law
Kwai-wing, 77, who said he had travelled across the border from
China's Guangdong province as part of a bus tour organised by
the pro-Beijing Federation of Trade Unions (FTU).
The group planned to stay for less than an hour before
returning across the border from Hong Kong for lunch, which tour
members would pay for themselves, he added.
Many rally participants, mostly elderly, told Reuters they
were provided free transport by various political and business
groups. In one district, about 150 people boarded buses
organised by the Hong Kong Livestock Industry Association.
One man told Reuters said he had boarded a bus from an
outlying area of Hong Kong and was given a HK$30 subsidy for
"It is normal to have a little bit of a subsidy when you are
at a march. Some (marches) give more, some less, but this time
we only get a little money for food," said Chan Chiu-fat, 55,
who was wearing a straw hat.
In a Whatsapp message seen by Reuters, people were offered
HK$350 ($45) to attend the rally "for five hours". The message
sender, however, declined to provide their name or background.
Alliance spokesman Chow dismissed such messages as fake and
attempts to discredit the campaign.
Debate has raged over the format of the election for Hong
Kong's next leader in 2017. Pro-democracy groups have called on
Beijing to allow open nominations rather than only letting
"patriotic" pro-Beijing candidates to stand.
Beijing has allowed Hong Kong - which returned to Chinese
rule in 1997 - to go ahead with a popular vote in 2017, the most
far-reaching experiment in democracy in communist China.
A group of pro-democracy lawmakers said they would press
ahead with the campaign to gridlock Central, if Beijing failed
to come up with a proposal to meet their demands.
(Additional reporting Dancy Zhang and Venus Wu; Editing by Anne
Marie Roantree and Michael Perry)