Thousands march against Hong Kong leader

Tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets of Hong Kong on Tuesday, calling for the city's embattled leader to quit and demanding greater democracy 15 years after it returned to Chinese rule.

Organisers have said they expected 50,000 people to join the New Year's Day march against Leung Chun-ying, while pro-government groups staged separate and smaller rallies in support of the Beijing-backed chief executive.

Since taking office in July Leung's popularity ratings have tumbled and he has faced a no-confidence vote in the legislature amid a row over illegal structures at his luxury home -- a politically sensitive issue in the city.

"We have to keep voicing our concerns even though the situation is getting worse," 27-year-old university student Billy Li said as the demonstrators set off from a park to march to the government's harbourfront headquarters.

Holding up posters of Leung portrayed as a vampire and a wolf, the protesters -- some waving flags from the British colonial era -- chanted "Give us universal suffrage immediately" and "Step down, Leung Chun-ying".

Leung has acknowledged and apologised for the structures, which were built without planning permission and include a wooden trellis and a glass enclosure.

He became chief executive after his rival for the post, Henry Tang, was brought down by a row over illegal structures at his own home.

Demonstrators have used the scandal to press for universal suffrage in choosing the leader of Hong Kong. It was returned to Beijing in 1997 but maintains a semi-autonomous status, with guarantees of civil liberties such the right to protest not seen on the mainland.

Leung was elected in March by a 1,200-strong election committee packed by a pro-Beijing elite, amid rising anger among the city's seven million inhabitants over what many perceive to be China meddling in local affairs.

Beijing has said the city's chief executive could be directly elected in 2017 at the earliest, with the legislature following by 2020.

"We want to push for Leung's resignation to further push for democratic elections in Hong Kong," Jackie Hung, a spokeswoman for protest organiser Civil Human Rights Front, told AFP.

"Because we don't have a democratic government, most of the policies introduced by this government do not directly reflect the interests of the people," she said.

Thousands of Leung's supporters chanted "Support CY (Leung), support the government" at a separate rally earlier. Organisers claimed a turnout of 60,000 while police put the figure at around 8,000.

In a bid to tackle discontent, Leung has banned mainland Chinese women from giving birth in Hong Kong in an attempt to secure residence rights for their children.

He has also introduced policies to prioritise housing for locals, a move which analysts say was a reaction to mainland buyers pushing up prices in one of the world's most expensive property markets.

But a survey released by the University of Hong Kong's Public Opinion Programme Monday showed those dissatisfied with the city's development rose 11 percentage points to 46 percent compared to a year ago.

About 1,000 police reportedly deployed for Tuesday's marches, following scuffles over the weekend at a pro-government rally that saw two journalists assaulted.

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