Reports that this city's democracy movement was dead appear to have been greatly exaggerated.
An unexpected turnout of as many as 250,000 marchers here Sunday is a clear repudiation of pro-Beijing policies that would stall if not kill democratic aspirations in Hong Kong. It also speaks to the vibrancy of a grass-roots democratic awakening that had been slumbering in China's most developed commercial city. Had Sunday's turnout been low, it could have sunk the democracy movement.
The protest, which filled Hong Kong's downtown on this breezy afternoon, was sparked by a proposal that would indefinitely delay a much-desired introduction of a "one man, one vote" system. It was also fed by statements from Hong Kong tycoons that the city wasn't mature enough to govern itself.
The march was a culmination of growing polarization between popular desire for speedy democracy and the Beijing-backed government of Donald Tsang. It sets the stage for future collisions between Tsang and the democrats.
All sides were calling Dec. 4 a "crossroads." Indeed, Sunday's march may prove as significant as the July 1, 2003, march of 500,000 residents that ultimately drove Mr. Tsang's predecessor out of office and gave birth to a democracy movement centered in the legal profession.
Beijing, concerned with stability, has long been wary of a full-fledged democracy movement. The news wires of the official Xinhua news agency in Beijing did not have a Chinese-language report of the event, but an English-language version described "a few" protesters. Police stated that the number was only 63,000.
Unlike previous marches, Sunday's crowd was focused solely on democracy issues, not on social or pocketbook concerns, or attacks on their chief executive. Instead, many people identified the political system itself as a main grievance. Ipod-carrying students, parents, businessmen, and retirees - virtually all articulated specific democratic principles like universal suffrage. Later, Tsang remarked that demonstrators had expressed "passion," and said that he wanted to see universal suffrage "in his time." But his opponents charge that his proposals will severely diminish that prospect.
Crowds rejected Tsang's bid to reshape politics in a way that would expand the role of officeholders appointed by the chief executive - one way Beijing influences local politics. The package would double the 800-member committee that picks a leader and expand the 60-member legislature.
"Hong Kong people want no more [political] appointments.... For us to accept more appointments is a regression, it is not progressive," said a businessman in tennis shoes. "It puts us further from democracy, not closer."
"People are not here to oppose Donald Tsang," says Tony Tong, a tourism executive. "They are here to oppose the system."
By 3 p.m., thousands had filled Victoria Park's six soccer fields. They sang "We Will Overcome" in Cantonese, listened to a prayer by Roman Catholic Bishop Joseph Zen, and filed out behind mock bird cages symbolizing democracy behind bars. A mention to the crowd that former chief executive Anson Chan was among them brought a cheer. Ms. Chan is considered a strong democrat, but has stayed out of all protests. Marchers wore black or white, slapped stickers of a phoenix on their faces, and held signs like, "I am marching today so that one day I may vote."
By 7 p.m., thousands were still filing out of Victoria Park; a few weeks ago organizers thought the march would bring perhaps 50,000 people.
Thousands of participants wore yellow ribbons in honor of local journalist Ching Cheong, who was apprehended in China last spring. Mr. Ching, a well-known figure and a Chinese patriot, had crossed the border reportedly to obtain a manuscript of the writings of Zhao Ziyang, the former premier who was placed under arrest after the Tiananmen Square episode of 1989.
The terms of Hong Kong's constitutional document, the Basic Law, state that in 2007, the political system could be reviewed. Democrats have seen that as an opening to universal suffrage. But Beijing rules that out, and Qiao Xiaoyang, deputy secretary of the National People's Congress standing committee, last week called it a "mission impossible."
After Beijing removed unpopular former chief executive Tung Chee-hwa, the democracy movement seemed to lose focus. Tsang, who was given credit for helping Hong Kong escape the worst of the Asian financial crisis of 1997, is seen as highly competent. Yet while he is selling his new reform as if it had emerged from the democracy movement, few democrats believe this.
Audrey Eu, head of the Article 45 Concern Group, called Tsang's TV address last week, in which he insisted that Hong Kong people buy into his proposal in an all-or-nothing fashion, as "something like a threat."
"I would be for the reform proposal if it were truly decided by Hong Kong," said Chan Lo, a marcher who works in a shipping firm and was here with his two daughters. "But it exists under a frame that has been fixed by mainland China. Since this frame exists, I am not really deciding. My feeling is that Hong Kong people are mature enough to understand this."
Many business elites in Hong Kong have spoken disparagingly of rallies and protests by "rabble." Yet as Sin-ming Shaw, a well-known Hong Kong writer puts it, "These are smart, accomplished people.... This is the first globalized Chinese community. They live in an ... open economy that competes well with the best of the world. So to hear we aren't mature enough...it is ridiculous. It angers people."