Hong Kong crowds rally for democracy

HONG KONG - Tens of thousands of protesters are taking part in what organisers say could be Hong Kong's largest pro-democracy rally in more than a decade.

The annual rally, marking the day Hong Kong was returned to China in 1997, is to demand full electoral freedom.

It comes after an unofficial referendum on how to choose Hong Kong's next chief executive drew close to 800,000 votes.

China says it will introduce universal suffrage for the 2017 vote - but wants the final say over who can run.

The Hong Kong government said the 10-day referendum had no legal standing.

Organisers expect more than half a million people to join the rally from Victoria Park to the city's Central district. Roads around the park were closed off and footage showed key roads jammed with marchers.

Several campaign groups have also indicated that they will stage peaceful overnight vigils after the march, which kicked off at 15:00 local time (07:00 GMT).

Reports said protesters were still in the park as the first marchers arrived in Central four hours later, giving an idea of the scale of the rally.

A rally in 2003 drew half a million people, who demonstrated against proposed anti-subversion laws which were later scrapped.

Protesters filled Victoria Park, where the march began

Security was expected to be tight, with around 4,000 police officers on patrol.

'Stability, prosperity'

Speaking earlier at a ceremony to mark the 17th anniversary of the former British colony's return to China, Hong Kong leader CY Leung said that the government was trying hard to forge a consensus on political reform.

"Only by maintaining Hong Kong's stability can we sustain our economic prosperity. Only by sustaining Hong Kong's prosperity can we improve people's livelihood," Mr Leung said.

Beijing has said it will hold elections for the role of chief executive in 2017, but the public will only have a choice of candidates selected by a nominating committee.

Campaigners want the public to be able to elect Hong Kong's leader directly and believe that Beijing will use the committee to screen out candidates it disapproves of.

The unofficial referendum, organised by campaign group Occupy Central, allowed the public to decide which of three proposals - all of which involved allowing citizens to directly nominate candidates - to present to Beijing.

Hong Kong was handed back to China in 1997 following a 1984 agreement between China and Britain.

China agreed to govern Hong Kong under the principle of "one country, two systems", where the city would enjoy "a high degree of autonomy, except in foreign and defence affairs" for 50 years.

As a result, Hong Kong has its own legal system, and rights including freedom of assembly and free speech are protected.

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