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Thousands protest Hong Kong-China rail link

world Updated: Jan 08, 2010 19:21 IST

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Thousands of protesters surrounded Hong Kong's parliament Friday to demonstrate against a proposed $8.6-billion express rail link to China.

The crowd, holding up banners and chanting slogans, gathered as legislators began a meeting where they are expected to approve funding for the controversial 26-km underground railway.

Protest organisers said there were more than 4,000 demonstrators outside the city's parliament shortly after 5 p.m. (1430 IST) and predicted the number could later reach 10,000 as people joined in after finishing work.

Opponents of the railway - reckoned to be the world's most expensive in cost per km - say the cost is too high and that the money should instead be spent on poverty alleviation.

"It is so much money and a lot of Hong Kong people won't benefit from this project at all. The money should be spent on other things," activist Christine Chan said.

But the Hong Kong government insists the railway is vital to connect the wealthy city to a 1,600-km nationwide express rail network being built in China.

Smaller groups including construction workers and government supporters staged counter demonstrations outside the legislature, calling for the project to go ahead.

A spokesman for one of the support groups said: "Hong Kong will be marginalised if this project does not go ahead. This railway is for the benefit of our future generations."

The vote on the railway is being seen as a litmus test for Hong Kong's administration after Chief Executive Donald Tsang was chided by Beijing leaders for failing to quell dissent.

It coincides with a debate over electoral reform in the former British colony which saw an estimated 30,000 people take part in a pro-democracy march to the Beijing Liaison Office Jan 1.

Pro-China politicians claim the issue has been hijacked by activists fighting for full democracy who they say will seize any opportunity to discredit the Beijing-appointed administration.