Thousands pro-democracy demonstrators march in Hong Kong

Low turnout for Hong Kong’s annual democracy rally

Low turnout for Hong Kong’s annual democracy rally

Pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong were expecting tens of thousands of people to attend an annual protest rally on Sunday to mark the 21st anniversary of the city's return to Chinese rule as tensions simmer over Beijing's tightening grip.

Hong Kong was guaranteed wide-ranging autonomy after 1997, but Beijing's refusal to grant it full democracy triggered massive street protests in 2014 and deepened resentment toward China's perceived growing encroachment on the territory, where its influence in almost every facet of life has increased.

Ahead of this year's march - which takes place on the anniversary of the city's return to China by colonial power Britain in 1997 - police rejected a number of starting points suggested by organisers.

Civil Human Rights Front, a pro-democracy Hong Kong organization, has been the march organizer since 2013.

Although the numbers have dropped compared to previous editions, the organizers are satisfied: "No matter the turnout, there remains the desire to continue the march", said Sammy Ip Chi-hin spokesman for the Civil Front for Human Rights.

Some protesters accused the police of using intimidation tactics to discourage the march.

Pro-Beijing Hong Kong newspaper Ta Kung Pao called for the march to be outlawed in an editorial last month.

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The march set off from a grass area at one side of the park and culminated at the government's headquarters.

The protesters on Sunday carried a coffin symbolising a death of democracy and chanted slogans against one-party rule in China, demands for universal suffrage in Hong Kong and mainland China, and freedom for Liu Xia, the widow of Nobel peace prize victor Liu Xiaobo. "I don't think so", said 13-year-old Joanna Wen, who was accompanied by her father. "The problems in Hong Kong have always been serious, but now they're getting worse". Hong Kong Celebrations Association head Cheng Yiu-tong stated before the rally this year that he expected possible confrontations with counter-demonstrators which could even lead to a "riot," but this did not take place. A University of Hong Kong survey of 1,000 people put her approval rating at 54.3 points, down from 61.1 points a year ago.

Likewise, police warned that actions might be taken against those who did not follow instructions, such as those who refused to gather at the Victoria Park lawn and instead tried to gather at the Victoria Park football pitches, or tried to join the march midway.

Since the 2014 Umbrella Movement, leading pro-democracy activists have been prosecuted on protest-related charges.

( Reuters ) A poster of Chinese President Xi Jinping with his eyes blocked by words " Not my president" is seen as thousands of protesters march along a downtown street during an annual pro-democracy protest in Hong Kong Sunday, July 1, 2018.

Other rights groups also joined the march, including lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender campaigners as well as protesters calling for better living conditions and equality in the densely packed territory.

Earlier, police reportedly stopped about twenty protesters from gaining access to a flag-raising ceremony.

Beijing's refusal to grant full democracy to Hong Kong triggered massive street protests in 2014 and has deepened resentment towards China's growing role in the territory.

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