BEIJING -- Tens of thousands of people took to the streets in Hong Kong yesterday to demand the right to vote for their leaders and say the process of democratization must be speeded up.
Organizers estimated the turnout at 250,000, though police put the number at 63,000.
Either way, the turnout was considered surprising given that the former British colony's economy is rebounding, unemployment is down, and people are generally satisfied with government.
What drew out demonstrators is a package of electoral change pushed by the island's chief executive and backed by Beijing that does not give a clear timetable as to when Hong Kong voters will have what is described here as universal suffrage.
Under the current system, the city's top leader is endorsed by Beijing and selected by a committee of 800. Only half of the legislature's 60 members are directly elected by the public. The other half is voted on by interest groups.
Hong Kong's chief executive, Donald Tsang, proposes to double the number of electors and add 10 seats to the Legislative Council. That, the prodemocracy activists say, is not good enough.
Hong Kong never enjoyed full democracy under British rule. After the former colony returned to Chinese control in 1997 under the ''one country, two systems" formula, the island was supposed to enjoy a wider degree of autonomy and eventually hold direct elections. But Beijing fears losing control of this wealthy economic hub.
The rally also could signal the end of the honeymoon period for Tsang, a relative popular figure. If the electoral package fails to pass in the Hong Kong legislature later this month, he could lose credibility with Beijing authorities as well as the Hong Kong public.