Thousands of pro-democracy protesters returned to the streets of Hong Kong on Sunday in the first large-scale rally since demonstrations rocked the global financial hub late last year.
Some 2,000 police flanked thousands of protesters who marched on the city's glitzy shopping and financial districts, seeking to avoid a repeat of the so-called Occupy Central campaign that saw demonstrations shut down key roads for two and a half months.
Organizers estimated the turnout at 13,000, but police said 8,800 people showed up at the peak of the march.
Daisy Chan, a protest organizer, downplayed the low turnout. "This only shows that Hongkongers are no longer satisfied with conventional ways of protest," Chan told the South China Morning Post newspaper.
"We will review whether the people want new ways to pressure the government ... I am confident Hong Kong-ers will show up again when the right moment comes," Chan said, according to the newspaper.
Last year's protests were the most serious challenge to China's authority since the 1989 pro-democracy demonstrations and subsequent crackdown in Beijing's Tiananmen Square. The protestors were calling for direct elections to choose Hong Kong's next leader. Beijing has allowed city-wide elections to choose the next chief executive in 2017, but wants to screen candidates first under a conservative electoral reform package proposed last August by China's parliament.
While the organizers of Sunday’s protest stood fast to earlier demands for direct elections in the former British colony, they insisted that their march would be peaceful and not seek to occupy any sites.
Packed streets resembled rivers of yellow as protesters carried yellow banners and umbrellas, a symbol of last year's campaign after protesters used them to fend off police pepper spray attacks. Chants of "we want true democracy" echoed off high-rise buildings. While anti-democracy groups were seen on the fringes of the protest, no scuffles were reported and it appeared there would be no repeat of clashes seen last year.
Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule in 1997 and enjoys wide-ranging freedoms and autonomy under a so-called "one country, two systems" arrangement, but many fear tightening controls from Beijing.
Sherman Ying, a 20-year-old student, said activists wanted their fates to be "controlled by us, not some government officials in Beijing or some puppet in Hong Kong."
Others, who disagreed with the protesters, said they were satisfied with the way things are. "We have freedom of speech, and the government has given us sweeteners before when there was a surplus. What else do you want? Hong Kong has never been more prosperous before," an 83-year-old man yelled at protesters, SCMP reported.
For the pro-democracy protesters, Beijing's steadfast refusal to consider the demand for direct elections has raised fears that China's leaders are tightening control over Hong Kong.
Beijing's proposal to screen candidates is due to be voted on by Hong Kong's 70-seat legislature over the summer. Pro-democracy lawmakers, who hold just over one-third of the votes, have pledged to veto the plan, setting the scene for further clashes and tension.
The protest organizers vowed to continue their struggle. "We want to make it clear to the government that ... we want true universal suffrage," Chan said.
Al Jazeera and wire services