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February 01, 2015

Pro-democracy protests return in Hong Kong

Thousands hit the streets for the first time since last year's Umbrella Revolution

HONG KONG - Thousands of pro-democracy protesters returned to the streets of Hong Kong on Sunday in the first large-scale rally since late last year, when demonstrations first rocked the global financial hub.

An estimated 12,000 protesters were flanked by some 2,000 police as they marched on the city's glitzy shopping and financial districts. Police sought to avoid a repeat of the so-called Occupy Central campaign that saw demonstrations shut down key roads for 2-1/2 months.

Last year's protests centered on securing a fully democratic vote to choose Hong Kong's next leader. They represented  the most serious challenge to China's authority since the 1989 pro-democracy demonstrations and crackdown in Beijing's Tiananmen Square.

While organizers held firm on earlier demands for full democracy in the former British colony, they insisted that Sunday's march would be peaceful and not seek to occupy any sites.

"We want to make it clear to the government that ... we want true universal suffrage," said Daisy Chan, one of the protest's organizers.

The protesters carried yellow banners and umbrellas to revive a symbol of last year's campaign, in which they were to fend off police pepper spray attacks.

Chants of "we want true democracy" echoed off high rise buildings.

The turnout fell far short of the 50,000 anticipated by organizers, but some participants said they were pleased the spirit of last year's action had not been lost.

While anti-democracy groups were seen on the fringes of the protest, no scuffles were reported and police separated potential troublemakers.

Other protesters, fearing they might face violence from anti-democracy groups later in the evening, armed themselves with protective shields.

As colonial-era Hong Kong flags and Union Jacks were seen flying among the crowds, one old woman yelled at a student waving the British flag: "You say you want independence, but you don't."

The student, Sherman Ying, 20, said the protesters wanted to ensure that their fates are "controlled by us, not some government officials in Beijing or some puppet in Hong Kong".

"It is just that simple," he said.

Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule in 1997 and enjoys wide-ranging freedoms and autonomy under a so-called "one country two systems" arrangement. Many are fearful of tightening controls from Beijing, however. 

Beijing has authorized city-wide elections for choosing the next chief executive in 2017, but wants to screen the candidates first.

The prospect of screening has stirred local democrats and their supporters, who fear pro-democracy candidates will effectively be barred from standing for election.