Tens of thousands of Hong Kong people braved torrential rains to march for full democracy on Monday, amid calls for the territory's Beijing-backed leader to step down.
Protesters, some of whom waved the British colonial flag of Hong Kong and played the U.K. national anthem, sent an overwhelming message in support of universal suffrage for the 2017 chief executive and 2020 Legislative Council elections in the territory.
The chief executive is now chosen by an electoral committee hand-picked by Beijing.
"We want fair and democratic elections," one protester, who gave only his surname Cheung, told RFA's Cantonese Service. "If we have elections for the Legislative Council, then why not for the chief executive as well?"
"The chief executive should stand on the basis of public opinion and hear the demands of his citizens, and not be directed by the central committee of the [ruling] Chinese Communist Party," Cheung said.
As tropical Storm Rumbia prompted a strong storm warning from the Hong Kong Observatory, marchers thronged out of Victoria Park and through the shopping district of Causeway Bay, holding banners which read, "Democracy now!," and "An End to Single-Party Dictatorship!"
Photos posted to local media showed streets filled with umbrellas on the main road toward the central business district and government headquarters.
Local media estimated the numbers at around 50,000, compared with around 400,000 on last year's march.
Calls still unheeded
A second protester surnamed Poon said he had joined the march because the calls for universal suffrage, first heard in 2003, were still going unheeded 10 years later.
"Hong Kong has had a hard time for the past 10 years," Poon said. "I want immediate universal, direct elections."
"[Leung's administration] has been below par, rubbish," he said.
One group carried a turtle made from balloons to symbolize Leung's perceived inability to engage with public life.
"Why do we represent him as a turtle?" said turtle-carrying protester Ah Ngau. "It's because whenever something big happens, he's never in Hong Kong."
Meanwhile, colonial-era civil service chief Anson Chan said Leung has no mandate from the people of Hong Kong.
"We have already waited for full democracy and for universal suffrage," Chan told reporters on Monday. "Our chief executive lacks a mandate from the people, and is unable to run Hong Kong effectively."
The march, now an annual channel for discontent, marked the 16th anniversary of the former British colony's 1997 return to Chinese rule, which was also honored in an official flag-raising ceremony by officials from Hong Kong and Beijing.
Nearby, a small group of protesters gathered to burn a photograph of Leung, who critics say has done little to benefit Hong Kong since coming to office a year ago.
Some demonstrators sang "Do You Hear the People Sing?" from the musical and film "Les Miserables."
"The main goal of the rally is to push through for genuine democracy and to ask for Leung Chun-ying to step down," Jackie Hung of the Civil Human Rights Front, told reporters on Monday.
The march comes as pro-China feeling is running at its lowest ebb since the handover.
Just 33 percent of Hong Kong people expressed pride in being a Chinese national, according to a recent survey published by the University of Hong Kong.
Anxiety over the city's political future sparked an "Occupy Central" movement in the downtown business district last year, with participants calling for universal suffrage by the next election.
On Jan. 1 of this year, tens of thousands of people took to the streets to demand the resignation of embattled chief executive Leung Chun-ying and universal elections for his replacement.
Leung was narrowly selected for the chief executive job this year by a pro-Beijing committee.
Under the terms of its 1997 handover to China, Hong Kong was guaranteed the continuation of existing freedoms of expression and association for 50 years.
Journalists and political analysts say that the ruling Chinese Communist Party has redoubled its ideological work efforts in the territory following mass demonstrations on July 1, 2003 against proposed anti-subversion legislation, which the government later abandoned.
Democratic Party chairwoman Emily Lau said the pan-democratic camp was united in support of the rally, calling on tourists and local residents alike to join in on the eve of the march.
"The majority of people are in agreement that there should be universal suffrage and direct elections as soon as possible," Lau told reporters on Sunday.
Hong Kong's leadership promised to address people's grievances, with Leung's second-in-command Carrie Lam telling reporters that the government "will carefully hear the opinions expressed by residents."
A Chinese spokesman, meanwhile, said the march proved that the freedoms guaranteed under the handover agreement were still intact.
"This year, with so many people going on the streets to protest, shows that under the 'one country two systems,' Hong Kong has a lot of freedom and rights," Zhang Xiaoming, who heads Beijing's Liaison Office in the city, told reporters.
Reported by Fung Yat-yiu for RFA's Cantonese Service and by Xin Yu for the Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.