Democracy activists in Hong Kong on Monday accused police in the former British colony of inflating the number of participants at a weekend demonstration opposing plans for an "Occupy Central" movement, which has threatened mass civil disobedience if China doesn't offer the city a real choice in the next election for its leader.
Police said the number of protesters at Sunday's pro-Beijing march for "peace and democracy" had reached 111,800, in sharp contrast to the University of Hong Kong's Public Opinion Programme's estimate of no more than 88,000.
Organizers of the demonstration claimed nearly 200,000 people participated in the demonstration aimed at opposing the Occupy Central campaign, which has vowed to take over Hong Kong's downtown financial and shopping district if voters are denied public nominations in the 2017 race for the next chief executive.
The pro-Beijing rally was intended to counter the city’s July 1 pro-democracy rally, which organizers said was participated in by some 500,000 people, against a police head count of just 92,000.
League of Social Democrats member Tsang Kin Shing said the police reporting of the numbers seemed highly skewed in favor of the pro-Beijing camp.
"The police greatly under-reported the numbers at the July 1 demonstration, but they over-reported the numbers at the anti-Occupy Central rally," Tsang told RFA on Monday.
"If we are really divided into pro-Occupy and anti-Occupy movements, then Chief Executive C.Y. Leung should hold a referendum, and allow seven million Hong Kong people to decide the issue," he said.
Some local television footage showed groups of "protesters" leaving soon after the main march left Victoria Park, while other shots showed participants receiving money from unidentified people.
Anti-Occupy activist Robert Chow said the Alliance for Peace and Democracy, which organized the march, would investigate the allegations.
"We will be carrying out a detailed investigation to find out exactly what went on here," Chow told reporters, adding that the numbers belonging to the group suspected of taking payments would be deducted from the overall count.
Some 1,170 pro-Beijing groups and politicians signed up for the rally, including Regina Ip from the New People's Party, and Tam Yiu-chung and Starry Lee from the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, local media reported.
Marchers wore colored T-shirts denoting allegiance to various social groups linked to different provinces and hometowns in China.
They carried placards which read: "Love Hong Kong, don't paralyze Hong Kong," "For the next generation," and "In support of one person, one vote in 2017."
Minor clashes broke out between demonstrators and Occupy Central supporters, and police arrested four men after receiving reports of assault, criminal damage, and a person throwing eggs, the government said in a statement.
"Hong Kong politics has become too polarized, and we don't want to see that," one protester told RFA.
"I want to see more moderation, and more moderate voices, and a spirit of consultation among all parties," the protester said.
"That's much healthier."
However, not everyone on the march seemed to know its aims.
"My friends came along, and so I came too," one elderly man told RFA. "I don't really know much about it; I'm over 80 years old. I just knew we were walking the streets after breakfast."
Hong Kong's Special Administrative Region (SAR) government said it welcomed the march, minus any disorderly conduct.
"The HKSAR government welcomes and supports all activities which take forward the implementation of universal suffrage for the chief executive election in 2017 in accordance with the law," it said.
"[The government] opposes all unlawful acts which affect social order and the betterment of our people."
Some 800,000 people voted in an informal referendum run by the Occupy campaign in June in support of three different nomination methods, all of which included public nomination options.
But Hong Kong's government has sought to play down the calls, sparking a wave of criticism from pro-democracy and civil society groups.
In a July 15 report to the National People's Congress (NPC), China's rubber-stamp parliament, Hong Kong Chief Executive C.Y. Leung said the elections would be run according to the special administration territory's mini-constitution, the Basic Law, which calls for election candidates to be vetted by a special committee before being approved to run.
In past elections, such a committee has been stacked with pro-Beijing candidates, making the selection of a pro-democratic candidate highly unlikely.
Reported by Lin Jing for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Yang Fan for the Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.