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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
And I'm Robert Siegel. Tens of thousands - possibly hundreds of thousands of people gathered in Hong Kong today. People there are angry about what they call an erosion of the rights Beijing promised them when the former British colony was reclaimed by China. That happened 17 years ago today. And the massive protest came after almost 800,000 people voted in an unofficial referendum calling for more democratic elections. NPR's Anthony Kuhn has more from Hong Kong.
ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Banners fluttered, slogans echoed and sweat poured as marchers gathered in Victoria Park before setting out across the city. One of them is a schoolteacher named Piano Chan (ph) - Piano as in the musical instrument. She's holding a sign that reads...
PIANO CHAN: (Foreign language spoken).
KUHN: Get lost, 689. It calls for the resignation of Chief Executive C.Y. Leung who was elected two years ago by 689 members of a committee stacked with pro-Beijing elites.
PIANO CHAN: (Foreign language spoken).
KUHN: I don't like him because he doesn't represent Hong Kong people, Piano explains. Beijing has promised universal suffrage by 2017. But it wants a nominating committee to weed out any candidates it considers unpatriotic. Beijing also recently issued a white paper urging Hong Kong's judiciary to judge cases on political grounds, not just the law.
ALAN LEONG: This has never been the understanding of Hong Kong people.
KUHN: Opposition lawmaker Alan Leong was one of 1,800 local lawyers who marched in protest last week at what they see as the Chinese Communist Party's assault on the rule of law in Hong Kong.
LEONG: Our judges simply decide cases without fear and favor. And they are never required to have any political consideration.
KUHN: Marchers surged through a busy downtown intersection as the walk signals turn green. Organizers claim more than half a million people marched. Police put the number at over 98,000. Some protesters have pledged to blockade the financial district if China tries to rig the election system. Opinion polls in Hong Kong suggest growing discontent with Chinese rule. Hong Kong University released a survey this month showing that Hong Kong people's sense of pride at being Chinese citizens remains near its lowest point since 1998. Signs of radicalism are hard to miss. College student Eric Fong (ph) is with a group waving Hong Kong's colonial-era British flag. He says he wants Hong Kong to declare independence from China. That is highly unlikely, but Fong insists he's not joking.
ERIC FONG: (Foreign language spoken).
KUHN: I'm totally serious, he says excitedly. I really want Hong Kong to be independent. Down with Hong Kong's communist regime. Beijing's top official in Hong Kong, Zhang Xiaoming, told reporters that the central government is committed to universal suffrage in Hong Kong.
ZHANG XIAOMING: (Foreign language spoken).
KUHN: Our sincerity about this is beyond doubt, he said. Our determination and sincerity will not change or waiver because of any referendum, or the scale of any demonstration. Former Chief Secretary Anson Chan was Hong Kong's second-highest official under both British and then Chinese rule. In an interview before the march, she says Beijing should remember that Hong Kong's basic freedoms have enabled it to play an indispensable role in China's modernization.
ANSON CHAN: Unlike any other Chinese city and province, we have the rule of law. We have the protection of basic human rights. We have regard for human dignity. We are an open, pluralistic society. These are our strengths. And Hong Kong people will fight to the end to preserve these core values.
KUHN: Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Hong Kong. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.