December 15, 2002 Posted: 5:28 PM HKT (0928 GMT)
HONG KONG, China (Reuters) -- Tens of thousands of Hong Kong people mounted one of their biggest marches in years on Sunday to denounce plans for an anti-subversion law they fear will erode freedom and civil liberties.
Holding banners, black balloons and pumping their fists in the air, the protesters marched to government headquarters in the Central district urging the administration to drop plans to enact the controversial law.
"This evil law will embroil Hong Kong, heaven and earth forbid," marchers chanted in the biggest display of public outrage since the government unveiled the law in September.
The constitution requires Hong Kong to pass the law, which Beijing is eager to see introduced in order to keep what it calls hostile forces from using the territory to subvert the mainland.
March organisers said more than ten thousand participated in Sunday's protest, but police declined to give a figure.
The proposed law has disturbed rights, legal and civic groups both in Hong Kong and overseas.
They worry it may be exploited by authorities in Beijing and Hong Kong against anyone they dislike in the former British colony, promised a high degree of autonomy when it was handed back to China in 1997.
"This law will threaten the rights of many many people in Hong Kong, how can I not protest?" said one marcher who identified himself only as Mr Wong.
People found guilty of acts of treason, sedition, secession from, or subversion of, the mainland government could be imprisoned for life under the new law.
As many as 100 civil and religious groups joined in the march, including the Falun Gong spiritual movement, which is banned in China.
Although legal in Hong Kong, the group fears a crackdown when the new law is enacted, since it will make illegal Hong Kong organisations linked to groups banned on the mainland.
The government, which insists the planned law has the support of the majority of Hong Kong people, is even at odds with the local Roman Catholic diocese, which is dead against the law.
Sunday's protest march began at sprawling Victoria Park with a prayer session organised by more than 70 Christian groups.
Bishop Joseph Zen, head of the Catholic diocese in Hong Kong, has repeatedly warned that the law will roll back religious freedom and free speech -- freedoms Beijing promised to leave alone in Hong Kong for 50 years at the handover.
Rights experts say concepts like "state secrets" and "national security" in the law are too vague, leaving them open to abuse.
There is also unhappiness at the government's refusal of a second round of consultations before sending the law to the legislature, a body perceived as so compliant it is unlikely to try to raise any serious objections or change major provisions.
Hong Kong's government has said, however, it will not import legal concepts from the communist mainland or curb rights.