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Thousands but fewer than in previous years join Hong Kong democracy rally

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HONG KONG — Thousands of Hong Kongers in crowds noticeably smaller than previous years took to the streets Wednesday to renew their call for full democracy for the Asian financial hub in a rally that follows a turbulent year of protests over political reform.

The fewer participants reflected the uncertain direction for the city's democracy movement after accomplishing the immediate goal last month of blocking the government's restricted election plan as well as diminished public appetite for street protests.

The annual protest march was held on a public holiday marking Hong Kong's handover from British to Chinese rule. It came seven months after the end of student-led protests that blocked streets in key districts for 79 days to demand free elections for the southern Chinese city's top leader.

"Maybe some of them feel tired and stressed from all these fights and arguments so maybe they want to take a rest," said Drake Leung, a 27-year-old information technology worker. "The package is already vetoed so there's no real clear reason to come out."

The Beijing-backed plan that was defeated by Hong Kong lawmakers last month required candidates be vetted by China's leadership, which activists criticized as "sham democracy" and a betrayal of Communist leaders' promise to eventually grant the city universal suffrage.

Beijing and Hong Kong officials say future leaders will continue to be picked by a panel of mostly pro-Beijing elites and they will now focus on economic issues rather than restarting the political reform process.

"Hong Kong people now have experienced the Umbrella Movement last year and are trying to think of other more progressive ways to express their views," said Eddie Chan, vice convener of protest organizer Civil Human Rights Front. The street protests were known as the "Umbrella Movement," after the demonstrators' preferred method of defending against police pepper spray.

Ahead of the rally, a small group protested outside a morning flag raising ceremony attended by Hong Kong and Beijing officials. They burned the Hong Kong flag and a picture of city's Beijing-backed leader, Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, and called for him to step down.

Beijing took control for the former British colony on July 1, 1997, but allowed it to keep its own financial and legal system and civil liberties unseen on the mainland, such as freedom of speech and protest. The holiday has become a traditional day to protest government policies and to call for democracy.

On July 1, 2003, more than half a million people took to the streets to protest proposed anti-subversion legislation. The size of the rally startled Beijing and led to the eventual resignation of then-leader Tung Chee-hwa.

PHOTO: A visitor poses for photos next to a naval ship during the open day of Stonecutter Island navy base of Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) in Hong Kong to mark the 18th anniversary of the Hong Kong handover to China in Hong Kong, Wednesday, July 1, 2015. (AP Photo/Kin Cheung)
A visitor poses for photos next to a naval ship during the open day of Stonecutter Island navy base of Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) in Hong Kong to mark the 18th anniversary of the Hong Kong handover to China in Hong Kong, Wednesday, July 1, 2015. (AP Photo/Kin Cheung)

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PHOTO: Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) personnel demonstrate during the open day of Stonecutter Island Navy Base in Hong Kong to mark the 18th anniversary of the Hong Kong handover to China in Hong Kong, Wednesday, July 1, 2015. (AP Photo/Kin Cheung)
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