Hong Kong: Protesters started an annual march on the 17th anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to China, demanding full democracy and highlighting opposition to Chinese control over the election of the city’s top official.

Civil Human Rights Front , the rally organizer, said as many as 500,000 people may show up after earlier telling police it expected 150,000 marchers. Occupy Central With Love and Peace, an activist group, has called on residents to join the rally after almost 800,000 people voted in an unofficial referendum against China’s insistence that it vet candidates for the chief executive election in 2017

“I love Hong Kong and I’m here to fight for its future," said Alan Ng, a 22-year-old worker at a logistics company.

“The developments of the past few weeks have really worried us. Hopefully the Hong Kong and China government will see us out in full force today and realize they need to make a change."

A white paper issued by the Chinese government on 10 June, saying the city’s high degree of autonomy isn’t an inherent power, has ratcheted tensions in Hong Kong. Division over that and the election issue threaten to bring about the city’s biggest political turmoil in a decade since half a million people marched against a planned anti-subversion law.

The attendees of the rally, some holding umbrellas and carrying banners, gathered at Victoria Park before starting the march about 4 p.m. local time to the Central business district.

Marching band

Political parties including the Civic Party and Democratic Party set up booths and hung banners, while the Falun Gong, a spiritual movement banned in China, had a marching band.

Some people hoisted the colonial Hong Kong flag while gathering around a statue of Queen Victoria, a reminder of Hong Kong’s colonial past.

The 1 July rally is an annual event on the anniversary of Hong Kong’s 1997 return to Chinese rule. Under terms agreed between the UK and China, Hong Kong enjoys its own freedoms and legal system until 2047 as a special administrative region, under the principle of one Country, two Systems.

Last year, the 1 July rally organizer said 430,000 took part to demand the government address a widening wealth gap and introduce broader democracy. The police said there were 66,000.

Both figures were the highest in at least nine years.

“The Chinese government is trying to go back on their promises with the white paper, and I’m here to take a stand against that," said Edward Ho, a 17-year-old student.

Public Nomination

Allowing for public nomination of candidates, which is what the Occupy Central’s referendum demands, will be against the Basic Law, the city’s mini-constitution and officials in Hong Kong and China have said.

Chief executive of the council of the Hong Kong special administrative region Leung Chun-ying is expected to submit an electoral reform proposal to Beijing for approval, before starting a second public consultation by the end of the year. He will submit the final plan to lawmakers.

About 87.8% of the voters in the referendum ended 29 June said lawmakers should reject any proposal that doesn’t meet international democracy standards.

Occupy Central has threatened mass sit-ins at the city’s financial district should the government fail to meet their demands.

Such tactics will paralyze the city, drive away tourists and companies and damage Hong Kong’s reputation as a global financial center, according to tycoons, foreign business leaders, brokers and accounting firms.

The concern is whether today’s protest turns violent, with the police setting up a makeshift detention center in case of mass arrests, according to the South China Morning Post.

“The Hong Kong Federation of Students and a student activist group called Scholarism are planning for a sit-in at Chater Road in the business district from midnight till 8 a.m. on 2 July," Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK) reported on Monday, citing spokesmen Chow Wing-hong and Joshua Wong. The students, who expect 2,500 people, plan to leave by 9 a.m., RTHK said. Bloomberg

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