Thousands of people took to the streets of Hong Kong to call for universal suffrage in planned elections for the territory's chief executive which are currently controlled by Beijing.
Many had expected the former British colony to enjoy full democracy by 2017, when the city will get a new leader to replace incumbent C.Y. Leung, a Beijing-backed candidate who narrowly defeated his only opponent, who also had the support of the ruling Chinese Communist Party.
Protesters carried banners calling for full and direct popular polls to elect Leung's successor, and for an end to Beijing's current custom of pre-screening candidates, which effectively bars democratic parties from fielding their own candidates.
A protester surnamed Liao said he had no desire to see yet another field of preselected candidates in 2017.
"The central government sends people here to make comments, and then [our own officials] start saying that any candidate must 'love China and love Hong Kong,'" Liao said.
"They should mind their own business and leave citizens to conduct their own business" he said. "That's why I've come out today."
Hand-picked by Beijing
Chinese officials and state media have said all nominees must be endorsed by an election committee that is hand-picked by Beijing.
"Whether or not we have full and direct elections in 2017 will depend on everyone working hard now," democratic lawmaker Lee Cheuk-yan told the annual New Year's Day rally at Hong Kong's Victoria Park on Wednesday.
"We must redouble our efforts and not lose hope, nor be silent," he told the crowd. "Everyone must work together for universal suffrage and for justice."
Fellow legislator Ray Chan, who helped found the activist group People Power, said the people of Hong Kong should be allowed to propose their own candidates for the leadership election.
"We are against premasticated elections," Chan told RFA at the rally. "The most important thing issue right now is whether or not Hong Kong people will have the right to nominate candidates."
"We are going to fight for public nominations."
Johnson Yeung, one of the rally organizers, said Hong Kong's political future is now at a critical moment. "The 2014 New Year's Day rally will become the first field of battle between the public and the government," he said.
In a city-wide civil referendum on Wednesday, 88.6 percent of more than 60,000 respondents said they thought the nominations committee should be more broadly representative of Hong Kong's political spectrum, while 91.2 percent opposed prescreening of candidates.
Just over 94 percent were in favor of the public having the right to nominate candidates.
Democratic Party chairman Emily Lau said the results weren't part of any official consultation process, but were indicative of the popular mood in Hong Kong.
"This is just a practice run, to see which proposals people vote for," Lau told RFA at the rally.
"The Democratic Party fully supports this process."
Former second-in-command Anson Chan, who heads a pressure group campaigning for universal suffrage, called on Hong Kong citizens to express their views on the election process by any means they can, and said that whether or not proposals for an "Occupy" movement in the Central business district go ahead will depend on the government's response.
"Today was just an experiment," Chan said. "If the government is sincere in its consultation process, and leads the people to a consensus on universal suffrage, then there'll be no need to Occupy Central."
Police estimated that more than 6,000 people left Victoria Park on Wednesday, while organizers said more than 10,000 turned out.
Under the terms of its 1997 handover to China, Hong Kong was guaranteed the continuation of existing freedoms of expression and association for 50 years.
But journalists and political analysts say that the Communist Party has redoubled its ideological work efforts in the territory following mass demonstrations on July 1, 2003 against proposed anti-subversion legislation, which the government later abandoned.
They cite a growing number of occasions where comments from Beijing officials have dictated policy changes in Hong Kong, belying the "one country, two systems" agreement that underpinned the handover agreement.
Reported by Lin Jing for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Xin Yu for the Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.