Thousands march on Hong Kong handover anniversary

HONG KONG - Tens of thousands Friday took to Hong Kong's streets in a carnival-like atmosphere to mark an annual pro-democracy rally on the 14th anniversary of the former British colony's return to China.

The noisy procession saw marchers clog the city's Causeway Bay district chanting and banging on drums, holding up placards and many donning costumes.

Dressed as a police officer, 22-year-old Kitty Hung said she and a group of similarly attired friends came out to highlight the differences between the southern Chinese territory and mainland China.

Hong Kong has a semi-autonomous status within China, which also held celebrations Friday to mark the 90th birthday of the ruling Communist Party.

"Freedom is a core value of Hong Kong and we want to bring attention to Hong Kong's political phenomenon," Hung told AFP, explaining the police costumes were meant to criticise authoritarian-style rule on the mainland.

The city, which returned to Chinese rule in 1997, guarantees civil freedoms not seen on the mainland, with the July 1 march an opportunity for campaigners to show the strength of opposition to Beijing and local authorities.

But anti-Beijing sentiment was just one issue on the minds of marchers, who were expected to number as many as 100,000 about double last year's number. Official attendance figures were not immediately available.

Some lashed out at the territory's government and soaring property prices that have pushed many in the teeming city out of the housing market.

"I think most people cannot feel the government actually cares," Designer Jing Wong, 29, told AFP.

"We have no choice but to be angry. It is too expensive for many people to buy a place on their own."

University lecturer Oliver Choy, 52, said he was protesting government incompetence, holding a sign that depicted a male and female head with a backside instead of faces to show politicians "were not using their heads."

"Why don't (politicians) use their brains - they just want to please the boss," he told AFP.

"The boss of the government is an even bigger bum," Choy added.

A record 500,000 people took part in the 2003 march, galvanised by an economic downturn and hostility towards the unpopular then chief executive Tung Chee-hwa and his proposed national security bill.

The unexpected show of people power forced the government to shelve the security legislation and was a key factor in Tung's resignation the following year.

"The level of dissatisfaction with the government is very similar to the level in 2003," Michael DeGolyer, director of the research organisation Hong Kong Transition project, told local radio RTHK.

Lawmaker, Lee Cheuk-yan, said many Hong Kong residents were becoming increasingly angry at soaring property prices and a growing income gap.

"People only see prices increasing and they're very frustrated," he said.

Hong Kong officials have repeatedly warned of an asset bubble forming, with Hong Kong's property prices surging past record levels seen in 1997 prior to the Asian financial crisis.

The financial hub, famous for its sky-high rents and super-rich tycoons, has seen home prices surge on the back of record low interest rates and a flood of wealthy buyers from mainland China.

The government imposed new taxes and staged a series of land auctions in the past year-and-a-half to boost supply and bring down prices.

But some properties are still fetching eye-popping prices - the home of France's top diplomat sold for HK$580 million (S$91.4 million).

A study by US consultancy Demographia in January found Hong Kong's home prices were the least affordable in the world.