HONG KONG - Hundreds of thousands of protesters, some waving colonial-era flags and chanting anti-Beijing slogans, staged a pro-democracy march in rain-soaked Hong Kong Tuesday that organisers say could be the largest since the city was handed back to China.
The scale of the turnout reflects surging discontent over Beijing's insistence that it vet candidates before a vote in 2017 for the semi-autonomous city's next leader.
It comes after nearly 800,000 people voted in an informal referendum to demand a free electoral mechanism that allows voters to nominate candidates.
The poll irked Beijing, which branded it "illegal and invalid".
The route from the city's Victoria Park to the skyscraper-packed Central business district was a sea of umbrellas and banners such as "We want real democracy" and "We stand united against China".
Flanked by security officials in lime-coloured vests, some protesters sang the Cantonese version of "Do You Hear the People Sing?" from the musical "Les Miserables".
Johnson Yeung, a rally organiser, said at least 300,000 protesters had joined the march by 7.45 pm (1145 GMT).
Organisers have said they expect a final attendance of over half a million, which would be a record for July 1 protests.
Police estimated 92,000 took part as of 7.30 pm but did not count protesters joining the march midway.
Some activists urged police to remove barricades lining the route to make more space for the swelling crowds.
"There is a strong desire for genuine democracy that offers choice and competition without (political) vetting," Anson Chan, a former number two official in Hong Kong who is now a pro-democracy activist, told reporters.
The chairman of the Hong Kong post office union, who marched in the sweltering and muggy weather, said the city's government was kowtowing to Beijing.
"This march is not for us, it's for our children. Without universal suffrage there's no way to monitor the government," said Ip Kam-fu.
The city's Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying sought to strike a conciliatory note, saying his government would do its utmost to forge agreement on implementing universal suffrage.
He offered no details on the 2017 election when he spoke at a flag-raising ceremony earlier Tuesday marking the 17th anniversary of the city's handover from Britain to China.
A handful of marchers pushed against police barricades but the rally was largely peaceful and a carnival atmosphere prevailed in several sections.
In one street performance, a model tank hurtled towards a protester, pointing its gun barrel at his neck as he attempted to push back.
July 1, a traditional day of protest, marks the handover of the British colony to China in 1997 under a "One country, two systems" agreement.