[HONG KONG] Some seven months after Hong Kong police forcibly cleared pro-democracy street protesters from the streets, tens of thousands of people are expected to rally for free elections on Wednesday as the city marks the 18th anniversary of its return to China.
Security was tight at an early morning flag-raising ceremony attended by senior Hong Kong and Chinese officials, with helicopter fly-bys and the playing of China's national anthem.
There were no disruptions from pro-democracy protesters although at least one activist was barred entry to the ceremony that was attended by hundreds of pro-Beijing supporters waving China flags.
Thousands of police will be on standby for the annual pro-democracy march later in the day marking the 1997 handover from Britain to China, media said, as tensions remain high following clashes over the weekend between pro-democracy activists and supporters of the central government in Beijing. "I think Hong Kong people's determination to fight (for democracy) has not changed. We believe they will treasure this opportunity to express themselves and take part in the march,"said Daisy Chan, convener of the Civil Human Rights Front, which organises the rally.
It comes nearly two weeks after Hong Kong's legislature vetoed a Beijing-backed electoral reform proposal that had triggered sometimes violent protests in the city, presenting Beijing with one of its most serious challenges in years.
In a handover commemoration speech at a ceremony on Wednesday morning, Hong Kong's leader Leung Chun-ying called on the city to move forward after the political turmoil. "The past year has been full of opportunities and challenges," Leung said on a stage flanked by Hong Kong officials and China's top envoy in the city, Zhang Xiaoming. "Even though political reforms have taken up considerable effort and time, the Hong Kong government will strengthen economic development and improve people's livelihoods." Police cleared away the last few pro-democracy tents near government headquarters last week.
Around half a million pro-democracy protesters joined the July 1 march last year, when police arrested more than 500 people who blocked a road in the financial district. That was considered a prelude to the 79-day Occupy movement of civil disobedience that kicked off in late September.
Hong Kong returned to China under a "one country, two systems" formula that granted the city wide-ranging freedoms denied in mainland China.
China also held out the promise of universal suffrage. The electoral blueprint rejected by lawmakers last month would have allowed a direct vote for the city's next chief executive in 2017, but only from among pre-screened, pro-Beijing candidates.