HONG KONG - Tens of thousands marched in Hong Kong yesterday demanding a timeframe for direct elections, but the city's Beijing-anointed leader stood firm on reforms that his critics say are inadequate.
With organisers putting the number of protesters at quarter of a million, the march could irritate China's Communist Party leaders and embarrass Hong Kong Chief Executive Donald Tsang.
Police said the five-hour march drew 63,000 protesters, many wearing "Hong Kong loves democracy" stickers and waving placards as they crowded between skyscrapers in one of the world's main financial centres.
Tsang said he "heard the voice" of the protesters but insisted there was little scope to change his package of reforms, which he hopes the Hong Kong legislature will pass on December 21.
He said the reforms should proceed before any timetable is set for universal suffrage, which Hong Kong's post-colonial constitution, the basic law, allows for.
"I'm 60 years of age and I certainly want to see universal suffrage in Hong Kong in my time," Tsang told reporters.
"Our leaders in Beijing are fully aware of what's happening in Hong Kong and they're not against democracy as such," he said.
Despite widespread calls for full democracy, Beijing, which regained control over Hong Kong in 1997, has been unwilling to let the territory decide for itself when this should come.
Hong Kong's chief executive is approved by China's leaders and picked by a Beijing-backed committee of 800 electors. Only half the members of its 60-seat legislature are directly elected.
The Tsang administration's reform plan would double the size of the Chief Executive selection committee and add 10 seats to the Legislative Council, five of which would be directly elected.
Sunday's protest evoked memories of July 2003, when an economic slump and disaffection with the then chief executive, Tung Chee-hwa, drew half a million people on to the streets of the former British colony -- one in fourteen residents.
"Donald Tsang is a good leader, but he's only elected by 800 people, which means he only has to please them," said Andrew Wong, 40, who works for an export business.
"I've brought my five-year-old daughter here to teach her what democracy is."
Walking among banners that read "You want a clown or a chief executive?" and "Oppose bird-cage political reform", Paul Tsang, 83, said Hong Kong lacked direction without a plan for democracy.
"Early in the morning, you wake up with a schedule, to eat breakfast and do things during the day," the retired army officer said. "It's ridiculous to do something without a schedule."
Anson Chan, who was Tung's powerful head of the civil service for four years after he took over from British governor Chris Patten in 1997, joined a pro-democracy march for the first time.
"I just feel there are moments in one's life when you have to stand up and be counted," she told reporters.