HONG KONG (AP) — Tens of thousands of Hong Kong residents began marching Tuesday through the streets of the former British colony to push for greater democracy in a rally fuelled by anger over Beijing's recent warning that it holds the ultimate authority over the southern Chinese financial center.
Organizers expect the crowd to swell to least 150,000 for the march to press for reforms allowing residents to elect their leader.
The protest comes days after nearly 800,000 residents voted in a mock referendum aimed at bolstering support for full democracy.
The peaceful crowds carried banners and posters calling for democracy as they marched through the center of the city.
Ahead of the rally, a small group of protesters burned a copy of a White Paper released by China's Cabinet earlier this month that had enraged many residents. The policy document said that Hong Kong's high degree of autonomy is not inherent but is authorized by the central government.
"After China's State Council issued the White Paper, the Basic Law became a figurehead," said activist Derek Chan, referring to the mini-constitution that guarantees Hong Kong can keep a high degree of control over its own affairs under the principle of "one country, two systems."
Chan and other protesters carried a mock coffin and banner reading "RIP Hong Kong" outside a flag-raising ceremony attended by officials to mark the anniversary of the handover of power from London to Beijing on July 1, 1997.
China's communist leaders have pledged to start allowing Hong Kongers to vote for the city's leader in 2017, though it insists candidates be vetted by a Beijing-friendly committee like the one that has handpicked all leaders since the handover.
But pro-democracy activists, encouraged by the strong turnout for their informal referendum, vow to shut down the city's financial district if the government fails to come up with electoral reforms that don't meet international standards.
The fallout over the White Paper has added to the widening rift between with the mainland. Hong Kongers mistrust of the central government in Beijing and its policies toward the city have spiked to record highs, according to opinion surveys released separately Monday by two universities.
Hong Kong University, which polled 963 people by phone for its survey, also found that the percentage of people who are proud of being Chinese is at the lowest point since 1998.