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HONG KONG (Reuters) - Thousands in Hong Kong held a protest march on Sunday calling for direct elections in 2012, in a public rebuke against Beijing's decision not to permit universal suffrage that year, but allow it in 2017 instead.
The peaceful protest march, which police said drew over 6,000 people, was the largest public demonstration in Hong Kong since a landmark ruling by China's parliament on December 29, which barred direct elections in 2012, but left open the possibility of picking the city's leader by universal suffrage in 2017.
Organizers said 22,000 people attended the rally.
"We want universal suffrage in 2012. Return our right for universal suffrage," the crowds chanted into loudhailers.
Wearing black and white clothes, the protesters, led by Hong Kong's elderly Catholic leader Cardinal Joseph Zen, marched several kilometers through Hong Kong's streets and waved banners with such slogans as: "Democracy delayed is democracy denied".
"Hong Kong's democratic development has been too slow, we want it to be faster," said protester Irene Wong, who works in the financial sector and marched with several friends.
But before the protest, Hong Kong's leader Donald Tsang urged the public not to focus on what wasn't possible, and accept Beijing's timetable for delayed democracy in 2017, saying it still represented a "historic opportunity".
"Now that a timetable has been set, I hope everyone will be able to focus on what is possible, rather than what is not," he said in a morning radio program.
"It's crunch time for everyone involved in our political development. It's never been a question of whether, it's no longer a question of when -- it's now a question of 'how'."
While few of the protesters explicitly criticized Beijing, the city's pro-democracy camp dismissed what it called the promise of "fake democracy" in 2017.
"In politics, nothing is impossible. Donald Tsang said don't fight for the impossible, but we believe we should fight for what's right and good for Hong Kong," said pro-democracy lawmaker Lee Cheuk-yan during the march.
A recent public opinion poll by the Chinese University showed more than 70 percent of people found Beijing's timetable of 2017 acceptable, yet over a third of respondents backed attempts by pro-democracy groups to fight for full democracy in 2012.
Hong Kong's mini-constitution, the Basic Law, promises universal suffrage as the "ultimate aim" but is vague on a date, giving Beijing scope to dictate a glacial pace of progress.
The chief executive is currently picked by an 800-seat election committee stacked in Beijing's favor, and only half of the city's 60-member legislature are directly elected with the others picked by various business and interest groups.
Editing by Jerry Norton