Thousands expected at Hong Kong pro-democracy rally

Thousands expected at Hong Kong pro-democracy rally that follows turbulent year of protests

HONG KONG (AP) -- Hong Kongers are set to take to the streets Wednesday to renew their call for full democracy for the Asian financial hub in a rally that follows a turbulent year of protests over political reform.

Organizers expect tens of thousands at the annual protest march, held on a public holiday marking Hong Kong's handover from British to Chinese rule in 1997. Local media reports say some 3,000 police will be deployed.

The event comes seven months after the end of student-led protests that blocked streets in key districts for 79 days to demand free elections for the southern Chinese city's top leader.

Wednesday's protest march marks the start of a new, uncertain chapter in the city's democratic development, which is now stuck in limbo after Hong Kong lawmakers voted down the government's blueprint for inaugural elections in June. The plan had required candidates be vetted by Beijing, which activists criticized as "sham democracy" and a betrayal of Communist leaders' promise to eventually grant the city universal suffrage.

Beijing and Hong Kong officials say future leaders will continue to be picked by a panel of mostly pro-Beijing elites and they will now focus on economic issues rather than restarting the political reform process.

"Hong Kong people now have experienced the Umbrella Movement last year and are trying to think of other more progressive ways to express their views," said Eddie Chan, vice convener of protest organizer Civil Human Rights Front. The street protests were known as the "Umbrella Movement," after the demonstrators' preferred method of defending against police pepper spray.

Ahead of the rally, a small group protested outside a morning flag raising ceremony attended by Hong Kong and Beijing officials. They burned the Hong Kong flag and a picture of city's Beijing-backed leader, Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, and called for him to step down.

Beijing took control for the former British colony on July 1, 1997, but allowed it to keep its own financial and legal system and civil liberties unseen on the mainland, such as freedom of speech and protest. The holiday has become a traditional day to protest government policies and to call for democracy.

On July 1, 2003, more than half a million people took to the streets to protest proposed anti-subversion legislation. The size of the rally startled Beijing and led to the eventual resignation of then-leader Tung Chee-hwa.