Published: Jul 01, 2011 7:39 PM EDT
Updated: Jul 01, 2011 6:40 PM EDT

HONG KONG (AP) - Tens of thousands of people vented anger over Hong Kong's skyrocketing property prices and government policies Friday at an annual march held on the anniversary of the former British colony's return to Chinese rule.

People blew whistles, beat drums and banged metal cups to express their unhappiness. Many waved flags calling for universal suffrage while others chanted "Down down with property tycoons" and called for Chief Executive Donald Tsang to step down.

Since the territory was handed back to China on July 1, 1997, Hong Kong has largely retained its Western-style civil liberties, including press freedom and the right to hold public protests. But its people still cannot directly elect the city's chief executive or all legislative members.

Several hundred protesters broke through a police cordon late Friday to carry out a sit-in protest in front of the Legislative Council building, while hundreds of others sat on a main road as hundreds of police, many with riot shields, stopped them from reaching the building.

Police used pepper spray on protesters who tried to break through. One protester was injured, broadcaster RTHK reported. Local NOW TV broadcast images of officers carrying away protesters to clear the road.

One of the big themes of the march, held on a public holiday marking the 14th anniversary of the handover, is the growing rich-poor divide in Hong Kong, where skyrocketing property prices have left many residences unaffordable and forced out small shopkeepers. March organizers said they wanted to protest the "hegemony" of Hong Kong's big property developers over the market.

Some protesters carried large signs depicting Tsang and billionaire Li Ka-shing, Hong Kong's richest man whose business empire includes a major property developer, with devil horns and vampire fangs. They chanted slogans accusing the government and developers of colluding to establish a monopoly.

Housing prices in Hong Kong have been driven up by ultra-low interest rates and excess liquidity, and the government has tried to cool the market by introducing measures twice since November.

"I only earn 10,000 Hong Kong dollars ($1,285) a month so it's difficult to save money for a deposit," said Faye Chan, a 26-year-old charity officer who lives with her parents but hoped to get married and buy her own apartment.

Chan said she also wanted to go back to school at some point but if she did, she would have to give up saving.

"I don't know when I'll be able to start a family," she complained.

Citizens are also upset over a recent government proposal to scrap by-elections and instead fill vacant legislative seats based on previous results.

The government came up with the idea after five pro-democracy legislators quit last year and ran again in a vote that they said would be seen as a de facto referendum on democratic reforms. The government argued that most people thought it was a waste of taxpayers' money and that electoral laws needed to be changed to prevent similar campaigns in the future.

"The proposal to get rid of by-elections to fill vacancies in the Legislative Council is a crazy idea and insulting to the intelligence of the people of Hong Kong," said veteran democracy activist Martin Lee.

"That's one principal reason but also on social issues, there is a lot of unhappiness. That's why the people are coming."

Hong Kong is the only place in China that enjoys a degree of Western-style adversarial parliamentary politics, so it's sensitive to electoral freedoms being eroded under mainland Chinese rule.

"We've had the right to vote since the handover. Now (the government) has taken it away suddenly without consulting us. It's not right," said 55-year-old Tina Wong.

"The government has raped public opinion," she added.

Some groups also protested against government plans to cap the number of hospital maternity ward beds available to pregnant women from the mainland married to men from Hong Kong. Others called for the release of Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo and other dissidents jailed in the mainland.

Organizers said 218,000 people turned out while Hong Kong police said there were 54,000 at the march's peak.

The rally - led by pro-democracy lawmakers and activists - has been held since 2003, when half a million people turned out to protest a national security bill that many viewed as draconian. The government shelved the bill.

(Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)