HONG KONG (AFP) - Thousands took part in a major pro-government rally in Hong Kong on Sunday to counter a civil disobedience campaign that has pledged to paralyse the city in a push for electoral reform.
Public discontent in Hong Kong is at its highest for years, with concern over perceived interference from Beijing and growing divisions over how its leader should be chosen in 2017 under political reforms.
Pro-democracy campaigners from the Occupy Central group have pledged to mobilise protesters to take over some of the busiest thoroughfares of the financial hub to push for greater democratic reforms. But the movement has been heavily criticised by Beijing and city officials as being illegal, radical and violent.
Organisers of Sunday's rally, the Alliance for Peace and Democracy, say the silent majority of the city's seven million residents do not support the Occupy movement. "We want to let the world know that we want peace, we want democracy, but please, do not threaten us, do not try to turn this place into a place of violence," alliance co-founder Robert Chow told AFP.
More than 120,000 people have signed up for the rally, starting at 1.30pm, but the turnout could reach up to 200,000, the alliance said.
Organisers said about 1,500 people, some brandishing Chinese flags, took part in a morning run in the lead-up to the afternoon march.
One participant of the "run and sweat" for peace and democracy event told local broadcaster Cable Television: "It (Occupy Central) will damage Hong Kong's economy."
An area dubbed as a "shrine for peace" has been set up in the Central business district for participants to dedicate flowers and offerings.
An unofficial referendum organised by Occupy activists saw the majority of 800,000 people who voted supporting reform packages that allow civil nominations.
In a counter move, an Alliance petition campaign supported by pro-Beijing groups and officials has so far collected some 1.4 million signatures, according to the group.
"I am... opposed to using illegal means including "occupying Central", which is designed to be illegal, to achieve "universal suffrage," Hong Kong leader Leung Chun Ying told reporters on Friday after signing the petition.
Hong Kong was handed over from Britain to China in 1997 under an arrangement that guarantees the city's freedom and civil liberties.
China says residents can vote for Hong Kong's leader in 2017 but concerns are growing that the city's pro-Beijing administration will set out a proposal that vets candidates.
Hong Kong's chief executive is currently chosen by a pro-Beijing committee.