HONG KONG — Thousands of Hong Kong residents marched on Sunday to observe the 21st anniversary of the territory’s return to China from Britain, a public demonstration of their dissatisfaction with the local government and their fears about the Chinese Communist Party’s growing influence in the territory.
Previously a British colony, Hong Kong was returned to China in 1997 with the promise that it could maintain for 50 years its own political and economic systems, including civil liberties that the Chinese government denies to citizens on the mainland. But many in the city believe that its freedoms and relative autonomy are already eroding.
Organizers said about 50,000 people attended the protest this year, one of the lowest totals since the march was first held in 2003; the police had not released their estimate as of Sunday evening, although the figures from Hong Kong law enforcement tend to be much lower than those provided by pro-democracy groups.
According to some estimates, about 60,000 people participated last year, when China’s president, Xi Jinping, came to Hong Kong to observe the 20th anniversary of the handover, though he left the city hours before the march started.
Hong Kong residents march every year on the anniversary of the handover, demonstrating for democratic values and usually calling attention to particular causes. In a first, this year’s march, which was organized by the Civil Human Rights Front, explicitly called for the end of one-party rule in China.
This year, marchers protested the local government’s decision to let mainland Chinese police operate in part of a new train station scheduled to open this year. They also demonstrated against the house arrest in China of Liu Xia, the widow of the Nobel Peace laureate Liu Xiaobo, that has restricted her movements since 2010.
Ho Siubo, a Hong Kong resident who joined the march with his friends and their children, expressed frustration with the education system in particular. The younger generation “should be educated about the society,” he said. “No matter which side, they need to know what happened.”
British rule “was the best time of Hong Kong,” Mr. Ho said, adding, “Justice is no more. Freedom has changed.”
Other marchers echoed his frustrations.
“One word to explain what the government is making us citizens feel is helplessness” said Catherine Lai, who frequently attends the annual march. “Our freedom is getting restricted as time passes.”
When asked what she would like the government to do, she said, “We should be given universal suffrage, and a couple tries before they say it does not work.”
Protest organizers said they had again been prevented from using a part of Victoria Park, one of the few large, open spaces near the city’s business district, as a staging ground for the march. Instead, the Hong Kong government let a charity, the Hong Kong Celebrations Association, use the area for an exhibition on dragon dance.
The charity group ridiculed the notion their event had been granted approval in order to prevent the annual handover march. “Why are you guys allowed to do a march while our event is considered lording it over?” Cheng Yiu-tong, the president of the Hong Kong Celebrations Association, said on social media.
Organizers encouraged participants to join the march in progress, rather than gathering in Victoria Park, but the police said that doing so could be a violation of the city’s rules on unlawful assembly.
“People have been allowed to join and leave whenever they want in previous years,” Sammy Ip, an organizer, said last week. “If it is illegal, they can arrest me first.”
Hong Kong’s top official, Carrie Lam, seemed to reiterate the point on Sunday at an official ceremony for the handover’s anniversary, saying, “Actions challenging the country’s bottom line will not be tolerated.”