Thousands march against Hong Kong leader Leung Chun Ying

HONG KONG (AFP) - Tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets of Hong Kong on Tuesday, calling for the city's embattled leader to quit and demanding greater democracy 15 years after it returned to Chinese rule.

Organisers of two New Year's Day processions against Beijing-backed chief executive Leung Chun-ying claimed a combined turnout of 140,000, while the police put the figure at 28,500.

Since taking office in July Mr Leung's popularity ratings have tumbled and he has faced a no-confidence vote in the legislature amid a row over illegal structures at his luxury home - a politically sensitive issue in the city.

"We have to keep voicing our concerns even though the situation is getting worse," 27-year-old university student Billy Li said as the demonstrators marched through the city to the government's harbourfront headquarters. Holding up posters of Leung portrayed as a vampire and a wolf, the protesters - some waving flags from the British colonial era - chanted "Give us universal suffrage immediately" and "Step down, Leung Chun-ying".

Traffic at a main road in central Hong Kong was brought to a halt at one point as hundreds of defiant protesters from the radical People Power party staged a sit-in.

Television news footage showed a few protesters including maverick lawmaker "Long Hair" Leung Kwok-hung being taken away by police.

Pro-government groups who staged separate and smaller rallies claimed a total of 62,500 people. Police put the figure at 8,560.

Mr Leung has acknowledged and apologised for the structures, which were built without planning permission. He became chief executive after his rival for the post, Henry Tang, was brought down by a row over illegal structures at his own home.

Demonstrators have used the scandal to press for universal suffrage in choosing the leader of Hong Kong.

The territory was returned to Beijing in 1997 but has a semi-autonomous status, with guarantees of civil liberties such as the right to protest which are not found in mainland China.

Mr Leung was elected in March by a 1,200-strong committee dominated by pro-Beijing elites, amid rising anger among the city's seven million inhabitants over what many perceive to be China meddling in local affairs.

Beijing has said the city's chief executive could be directly elected in 2017 at the earliest, with the legislature following by 2020.

"Because we don't have a democratic government, most of the policies introduced by this government do not directly reflect the interests of the people," said Ms Jackie Hung, a spokesman from the largest protest organiser, the Civil Human Rights Front.

In a bid to tackle discontent, Mr Leung has banned mainland Chinese women from giving birth in Hong Kong to secure residence rights for their children.

He has also introduced policies to prioritise housing for locals, a move which analysts say was a reaction to mainland buyers who were blamed for pushing up prices in one of the world's most expensive property markets.

But a survey by the University of Hong Kong's Public Opinion Programme on Monday showed those dissatisfied with the city's development rose 11 percentage points to 46 per cent compared to a year ago.

"People are getting more dissatisfied because they don't trust Leung, judging from how he handled the illegal structures issue," political analyst Joseph Cheng from Hong Kong's City University told AFP.

"They marched to tell Beijing and the world that they want universal suffrage." A government spokesman said the authorities would listen to views expressed at the mass demonstration "in a humble manner".