Taipei Times/AFP: (Hong Kong) July 03, 2006 - Emboldened by a strong turnout for their annual protest rally, Hong Kong's democracy campaigners yesterday sought to consolidate rejuvenated support for their struggle for universal suffrage.
One of their aims is to form an alliance with popular former deputy leader Anson Chan , whose presence at Saturday's street rally sparked a media blitz and is credited with boosting attendance.
Organizers estimated that 58,000 people braved soaring temperatures to join the annual rally calling for full democracy in the territory.
Although police put the figure much lower at 28,000, all estimates were higher than the estimated 20,000 marchers who attended last year's rally and exceeded most pundits' expectations.
"It shows that there is still enormous demand for universal suffrage," outspoken lawmaker Emily Lau said. "This was a good turnout."
Political watchers had been pessimistic about this year's rally, which marked the ninth anniversary of the day the former British colony was handed over to Chinese rule.
The pro-democracy camp once had huge support for its campaign to see the implementation of universal suffrage, as promised in the city's Basic Law constitution. Since Britain ceded control of Hong Kong in 1997, it has waged a bitter feud with government officials for the reform of an electoral system that sees leaders selected by a cabal of 800 China-backed elites.
The struggle has brought pro-democracy leaders in conflict with the ruling Chinese Communist Party, which is opposed to sudden reforms in China's richest city for fear it may destabilize the economy and spark calls for change in other parts of the country.
However, democrats have seen their support base dwindle in the past year as a booming economy and popular new China-backed Chief Exective Donald Tsang have swayed the agenda.
Democratic legislators' rejection of a government bill to introduce limited political reform last year also cast the movement as belligerent and an obstacle to economic development.
The decline in its fortunes was seen in falling attendances for the annual July 1 rally, which in 2003 and 2004 attracted more than half a million people.
The success of Saturday's demonstration has been partly accredited to Chan, who remains one of the city's most popular figures despite leaving government five years ago.
Chan emerged as a democrat last year when she joined a rally to gather support against the government's reform proposals, sparking suggestions she would challenge Tsang for the top spot.
So far she has acted without the backing of the mainstream pro-democracy movement, whose leaders have kept the former chief secretary at arm's length, fearing her celebrity would overwhelm their message.
However, such was the reception she received on Saturday that the heads of the democratic groups in the legislature have invited Chan to join them.
"We have asked her for a meeting to see what we could do together," said Lau, who was among several pro-democracy leaders Chan called yesterday to offer thanks for their support.
"She said she would consider it," Lau added.
Hong Kong government officials responded to Saturday's strong rally showing with a statement saying it took the calls for universal suffrage seriously and all options were open to discussion.
Echoing repeated calls by Chinese leaders not to upset social harmony in Hong Kong, Constitutional Affairs Secretary Stephen Lam yesterday urged all sides to set aside their differences and seek common ground.