HONG KONG: Hundreds of thousands of protesters, some waving colonial-era flags and chanting anti-Beijing slogans, staged a pro-democracy march in rain-soaked Hong Kong Tuesday that organisers say could be the largest since the city was handed back to China.
The scale of the turnout reflects surging discontent over Beijing's insistence that it vet candidates before a vote in 2017 for the semi-autonomous city's next leader.
It comes after nearly 800,000 people voted in an informal referendum to demand a free electoral mechanism that allows voters to nominate candidates.
The poll irked Beijing, which branded it "illegal and invalid".
The route from the city's Victoria Park to the skyscraper-packed Central business district was a sea of umbrellas and banners such as "We want real democracy" and "We stand united against China".
Flanked by security officials in lime-coloured vests, some protesters sang the Cantonese version of "Do You Hear the People Sing?" from the musical "Les Miserables".
Johnson Yeung, a rally organiser, said at least 300,000 protesters had joined the march by 7.45 pm (1145 GMT).
Organisers have said they expect a final attendance of over half a million, which would be a record for July 1 protests.
Police estimated 92,000 took part as of 7.30 pm but did not count protesters joining the march midway.
Some activists urged police to remove barricades lining the route to make more space for the swelling crowds.
"There is a strong desire for genuine democracy that offers choice and competition without (political) vetting," Anson Chan, a former number two official in Hong Kong who is now a pro-democracy activist, told reporters.
The chairman of the Hong Kong post office union, who marched in the sweltering and muggy weather, said the city's government was kowtowing to Beijing.
"This march is not for us, it's for our children. Without universal suffrage there's no way to monitor the government," said Ip Kam-fu.
The city's Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying sought to strike a conciliatory note, saying his government would do its utmost to forge agreement on implementing universal suffrage.
He offered no details on the 2017 election when he spoke at a flag-raising ceremony earlier Tuesday marking the 17th anniversary of the city's handover from Britain to China.
A handful of marchers pushed against police barricades but the rally was largely peaceful and a carnival atmosphere prevailed in several sections.
In one street performance, a model tank hurtled towards a protester, pointing its gun barrel at his neck as he attempted to push back.
July 1, a traditional day of protest, marks the handover of the British colony to China in 1997 under a "One country, two systems" agreement.
That allows residents liberties not seen on the mainland, including free speech and the right to protest.
But there are heightened fears that those freedoms are being eroded.
Among other worries, there has been a series of attacks on media workers in recent months -- including the stabbing of a liberal former newspaper editor -- while pro-democracy media have complained of massive cyber-attacks.
Concerns increased in June when Beijing published a controversial "white paper" on Hong Kong's future that was widely seen as a warning to the city not to overstep the bounds.
A march on July 1, 2003, saw 500,000 people protest against a proposed national security bill, forcing the government to shelve it.
Two student groups have said they will hold an overnight rally after the march to "occupy" a Central street and an area outside the government headquarters.
One of the group's leaders, Joshua Wong, said the student rally would be held to vent "anger" towards the authorities but would be peaceful.
Pro-democracy group Occupy Central, which organised the referendum, has said that it will stage a mass sit-in in the city's business district later this year unless authorities come up with acceptable electoral reforms.
The unofficial referendum, which ended Sunday, gave three options for the election of the city's next leader, all of which included the public having some influence on the selection of candidates.
Beijing has condemned the vote and accused its organisers of breaching the rule of law.
China has promised to let all Hong Kong residents vote for their next leader in 2017 -- currently a 1,200-strong pro-Beijing committee chooses the city's chief executive.
But it says candidates must be approved by a nomination committee, which democracy advocates fear will mean only pro-Beijing figures are allowed to stand.
A study released on Monday by the Chinese University's Hong Kong Institute of Asia-Pacific Studies suggested that mistrust of Beijing is growing.
Nearly 44 percent of around 800 Hong Kong residents interviewed for the monthly survey said they did not trust the central government, up five percentage points from May. (AFP)