HONG KONG – Tens of thousands of people marched through downtown Hong Kong (search) on New Year's Day to demand full democracy in this former British colony, the biggest rally since a mass protest in July that threw the government into crisis.
Chanting "return power to the people," about 100,000 protesters marched from an urban park to the government headquarters, according to organizers.
Police said late Thursday as many as 37,000 people were at the park at the height of the demonstration — and the total would have been higher. Police reversed an earlier decision not to provide a crowd-size estimate.
The demonstration was seen as a crucial barometer of public sentiment, exactly six months after a half-million people took to the streets denouncing an anti-subversion bill proposed by the Hong Kong government, and backed by Beijing (search), as a threat to freedom.
"We have made history again!" said rally spokesman Richard Tsoi, adding the march showed that the so-called "people power" movement hasn't faded away.
"It clearly shows that Hong Kong people still have a very strong desire for full democracy," he said.
Thursday's turnout exceeded predictions by organizers, who said earlier that people would have less impetus to protest this time.
The government's controversial proposal was shelved in October, and Hong Kong's economy — another source of public discontent — appears to be on the rebound.
Marchers — many of whom also protested on July 1 — said that wasn't enough.
"Democracy is something we need to maintain a fair society," said 40-year-old Connie Yau, a civil servant.
Since coming under Chinese rule in 1997, Hong Kong has enjoyed Western-style freedoms unheard of on the mainland, but remains only partially democratic.
Hong Kong's top leader Tung Chee-hwa (search) was picked by an 800-person elite committee loyal to Beijing. During the last election, ordinary people were allowed to choose only 24 of Hong Kong's 60 lawmakers, with the rest filled by special interest groups and the committee that selected Tung.
Protesters on Thursday heaped criticism on Tung, who has faced calls for his resignation over the anti-subversion bill and alleged economic mismanagement.
"Tung hasn't listened enough," said 36-year-old businessman Steve Lee.
Unemployed Bondy Ng, 33, said that, "Hong Kong would only get better if we find someone capable to replace Tung."
Hong Kong's mini-constitution sets full democracy as an end goal, but provides no timetable.