Pro-democracy march attracts thousands in Hong Kong

HONG KONG - At the Victoria Park in Causeway Bay, 20-year-old student Jojo Lau Yee Tung holds up her bag of plastic ponchos and umbrellas.

The idea, she says, is to use them as "shields" in case the police deploys pepper spray on protesters. She and her friends are intending to join an illegal sit-in in Central Tuesday night to lobby for "genuine" electoral reforms.

Over at the proposed spot at Chater Road, the police are making preparations of their own. By 4.30 pm, groups of officers were huddling, some unwinding hoses and filling up plastic barricades with water. Others patrolled the area, including the nearby Statue Square and the MTR train exits.

Meanwhile, staff members at the nearby Hong Kong Club building boarded up the glass entrance of the building to protect it from damage.

On the 17th anniversary of Hong Kong's return to Chinese rule, the city - roiled by unhappiness over issues from the belief that Beijing is denying them "genuine" democracy to its undermining of Hong Kong's autonomy - is bracing itself for a proposed exercise in civil disobedience.

Students and activists say that they intend to peacefully blockade the road after Hong Kong's annual protest march - which is commonly used as a barometer of the city's unhappiness - ends.

Organisers are expecting the march itself to attract a record turn-out, exceeding the half million people who marched in 2003 to oppose an anti-subversion law.

Under the baking sun, many gathered to express their hopes.

Teachers Vincent Chen and Joan Poon, both 44, are there with their 11-year-old son Ching Chin.

"We want the government to listen to us. We want the right to choose our own leaders," says Mr Cheng.

Beijing has promised Hong Kong universal suffrage, or one-person one-vote rights, by 2017. But many Hong Kongers are unhappy about the need for a nominating committee - as enshrined in the Basic Law - which they fear will be an excuse to bar pan-democrats from qualifying.

Mr Cheng says he is not against a nominating committee per se but adds that Hong Kongers should have the right to elect members of this committee. "This is our right as citizens."

In Beijing, Chinese Vice President Li Yuanchao called on Hong Kong youths to protect Hong Kong's prosperity and stability by supporting the government's efforts on political reform. Constitutional reform, he added, should be in accordance to the Basic Law.

"Hong Kong has remained prosperous and stable in the past 17 years," he declared, calling on young Hong Kongers to "tie their personal fate" to that of Hong Kong and the country.