HONG KONG�Tensions are running high in Hong Kong ahead of the seventh anniversary Thursday of the former British colony�s handover to Chinese rule, when hundreds of thousands of protesters are expected to march in favor of greater democracy.

In an apparent last-minute bid to scupper the event, unidentified computer hackers issued e-mails Wednesday saying the protest would be postponed, march organizers said.

The hackers sent out messages headed �URGENT: July 1 rally will be postponed to July 4 due to bad weather,� the Civil Human Rights Front said. The e-mails, sent using one of the Front�s addresses, contained a document warning that the rally�which is expected to attract some 300,000 people�would be put off.

And as pro-democracy politicians split at the 11th hour over whether to use a controversial slogan �Return power to the people,� police said they would be on their guard for counter-protests organized by Beijing�s supporters.

Former Democratic Party chairman Martin Lee said in apparent attempt at easing tension with Beijing that he would not personally be using the slogan, which some Chinese officials interpret as a separatist rallying call.

�I don�t think that saying �Return power to the people� means we are pro-independence,� pro-democracy politician Szeto Wah told RFA. The phrase was used by the Chinese Communist Party�s Xinhua News Agency in 1945.

He also defended calls for greater democracy. �It does not mean the overthrow of the Communist Party. If it means that, then the Communist Party is revealing that it assumes that it would immediately lose power [in a more democratic situation].�

Apart from the rally, Thursday�s anniversary will also be marked with the pomp and circumstance of the official celebration of the handover of Hong Kong to China in 1997 after more than 150 years of British rule, a development that many in Hong Kong welcomed at the time.

Following a speech by Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa, China�s handpicked leader for the territory, the Peoples� Liberation Army will put its arsenal of weapons and tanks on display.

Later, up to 1,000 police will be on hand as the pro-democracy protesters begin their march in mid-afternoon from a park to local government headquarters in the heart of one of Asia�s biggest financial centers.

Hong Kong police have pledged to monitor tall buildings and pedestrian crossings along the march route and to be on guard against �anyone acting illegally to disrupt or damage the march,� RFA�s Cantonese service reported.

Rumors have circulated that Beijing supporters might use such places to throw things at marchers. Rally organizers have called on demonstrators not to respond to either physical or verbal abuse to avoid escalating violence.

Around half a million Hong Kong people took to the streets on July 1 last year in a peaceful and orderly protest at the Hong Kong government�s deeply unpopular attempt to force through an anti-subversion law without adequate consultation.

The size of the protest shocked Beijing, which has since moved to quash early moves to full democracy in Hong Kong with a surprise ruling in April that Hong Kong citizens will not be able to directly elect their next leader in 2007 or all lawmakers in 2008. Ordinary voters have no say in choosing their leader, though they will pick 30 of the 60 Legislative Council seats in September.

Critics say China has reneged on its promise to grant the territory a great deal of local autonomy under a government arrangement dubbed �one country, two systems�� that was put in place at the handover.

Seven years to the day after stepping down as the last colonial governor in the territory, EU Foreign Affairs Commissioner Chris Patten called on Beijing to allow Hong Kong�s citizens a greater political voice in running the city.

While recognizing that Hong Kong had never been a full democracy under British rule, Patten said the city had always been a liberal society and its people were well-educated and sophisticated.

�I think it would be sensible for the leadership in Beijing to recognize this and to work with the grain in Hong Kong and to give people in Hong Kong rather more say in shaping their own affairs,� Patten told reporters in Singapore. #####


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