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Democracy Protesters In Hong Kong Call For Free Elections


Thousands of pro-democracy protesters marched in Hong Kong today.


CHORUS: (Foreign language spoken).

GREENE: This comes on the 17th anniversary of the return of Hong Kong to Chinese rule. The protesters are demanding greater democracy, a bigger role in selecting leaders. China's government tries to control the political process through a nominating committee. NPR's Anthony Kuhn spoke to Renee yesterday about an unofficial referendum this week. Nearly 800,000 of the city's 7 million people voted for full democracy. China's Communist Party denounced that vote. Now people have taken to the streets and Anthony is back with us again this morning. Anthony, good morning.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Good morning, David.

GREENE: So you're in Hong Kong. You're out there in these protests. What's the scene look like?

KUHN: Sweltering. I just came back there. The protesters walked out of Victoria Park and through crowded streets. It's hard to know sort of numbers were there. The organizers are hoping from - anywhere from 150,000 up to half a million. And these marches have been going on just about every year on July 1 since 1997. And it's just an incredible display of civic - civil society in Hong Kong. You've got families with kids, students and just every political view on the spectrum out there calling for fair elections in the selection of Hong Kong's top leader.

GREENE: All, as you say, braving what sounds like some pretty awful heat. I mean, is there a way to summarize exactly what all these protesters are asking for?

KUHN: Well, specifically in terms of choosing their leaders, they want an open nomination process to choose Hong Kong's chief executive. The law says it has to be through this nominating committee, which Beijing can control by packing with its own loyalist. But they want the process to follow the law and for the committee to be representative of society or for people to directly elect these leaders. But in general, they want Beijing to make good on its promise that it made when it came back to Chinese sovereignty. And that is to maintain their system of separation of powers, independent judiciary and a free press. They will all that continue.

GREENE: Well, Anthony Kuhn, I mean, the Chinese government was sent a pretty strong message telling Hong Kong residents not to go on the streets, not to participate in these protests. Did people just ignore that message?

KUHN: For the most part, yes. In fact, the message from Beijing probably put more people in the streets. This march was clearly a pushback against what they - what marchers felt was increasingly restrictive and heavy-handed governance from Beijing. There are some pro-Beijing groups that were out there staging counter-protests. But they were pretty small by comparison. But we saw a lot more radical groups this time. We saw people out there waving British colonial-era flags, asking for Hong Kong to become an independent country. They were so dissatisfied with Chinese governance over Hong Kong. And polls show that those people are on the rise in terms of numbers.

GREENE: And briefly we should say, I mean, you mentioned these protests have been happening every year since 1997, essentially. Do they work sometimes?

KUHN: Sometimes. You know, in 2003, for example, half a million protesters took to the streets to march against proposed draconian security legislation. And the government shelved it. Now, Beijing is not in a mood to compromise this time. They're taking a very hard line on dissent in everything. But there is going to be a back-and-forth after this march. Beijing will have to provide some sort of plan for the election. And if protester organizers don't like it, they're going to occupy and blockade the city's central financial district.

GREENE: All right, that's NPR's Anthony Kuhn talking to us about pro-democracy protests that are taking place today in the city of Hong Kong. Anthony, thanks very much.

KUHN: Thank you, David.

GREENE: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.