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Hong Kong protesters call for free elections

HONG KONG — HONG KONG - Tens of thousands of demonstrators gathered last evening under a waxing moon to stand before this city's legislature building and call for free elections and the resignation of Hong Kong's leader.

The crowd filled a downtown avenue and two urban parks. But it did not come close to matching the estimated 500,000 people who marched here July 1, mainly to protest a stringent internal security bill that the government was trying to push through the Legislative Council.

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The government toned down that bill Saturday, postponed a vote on it early Monday and has not set a new schedule for its consideration.

Richard Tsoi, a spokesman for the Human Civil Rights Front, which organized both rallies, said that the peaceful gathering last night drew the 50,000 people that the group had expected before the government withdrew the bill Monday.

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Police estimated that at least 30,000 people were present halfway through the two-hour rally and that more may have left earlier or arrived later.

Speakers called not only for the security legislation to be redone entirely, but also for Hong Kong's chief executive and all lawmakers to be elected by universal suffrage, making the territory a democratic model for the rest of China.

Demonstrators also chanted many times for the resignation of Hong Kong's chief executive, Tung Chee-hwa, although Tsoi said that that was not the purpose of the rally. Record unemployment of 8.3 percent, falling home prices and Hong Kong's slow initial response to SARS have sapped Tung's popularity.

Compared with those at the July 1 rally, last night's demonstrators seemed to include a higher proportion of students and other young people. But there were also signs that the demonstration last week might have broadened the range of people willing to attend rallies here.

Ho Chin, 69, a retired electrician, said that he had never attended a political demonstration until last week but came again yesterday because, he said, "I want to have a vote."

Beijing has shown no interest in letting people here play a greater role in choosing their leaders, and top Hong Kong officials have been openly hostile at times.

The political leader of this city's powerful business community declared yesterday that he thought the political system should continue to reserve a large role for business people because democratically elected candidates too often lack technical expertise in legislative issues affecting companies.


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