Wed July 9, 2003 10:09 AM ET

A protester holds a sign denouncing top Hong Kong government officials outside the territory's Legislative Council building, July 9, 2003. Tens of thousands of people are expected to surround the council building on Wednesday for a candlelight vigil to show they have lost faith in the government of Hong Kong leader Tung Chee-hwa. Photo by Bobby Yip/Reuters

James Tien(C), leader of Hong Kong's pro-business Liberal Party, attends a news conference with party vice-chairman Selina Chow (R) and members who are also legislators in Hong Kong July 7, 2003. Hong Kong Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa was forced to postpone a controversial anti-subversion bill on Monday after Tien quit his Executive Council, leaving the government facing the prospect that it would not be able to muster enough votes to pass the legislation. Photo by Kin Cheung/Reuters

By Carrie Lee

HONG KONG (Reuters) - Tens of thousands of people surrounded Hong Kong's legislature on Wednesday to denounce the government and its planned anti-subversion bill, cranking up pressure on the territory's embattled chief executive.

Organizers said about 50,000 people took part in the candlelit vigil, which ended peacefully after a few hours. Dragging effigies of the unpopular Beijing-backed leader and some of his ministers, some shouted: "Step down Tung Chee-hwa!"

The demonstration at the heart of Hong Kong's business district came a week after half a million protesters took to the streets to condemn the bill in the city's biggest demonstration since the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.

A number of academics, politicians and right activists made impassioned speeches denouncing Tung Chee-hwa's administration for not listening to the people and calling for more democracy.

"You have demeaned us by not listening to our views ... we want universal suffrage," academic Chan Kin-man said as the crowded roared in approval.

Protestors were packed in pockets of open spaces and standing shoulder to shoulder in streets surrounding the territory's legislative building. They raised fists in unison to songs of courage and patriotism.

Hundreds of police were at hand to direct traffic.

Widespread anger at Tung over the security bill and his failure to revive the ailing economy have snowballed into Hong Kong's biggest political crisis in years.

Though he reluctantly agreed on Monday to postpone the bill for more public consultation, frustration with his leadership in the last six years has reached the boiling point. Many ordinary people have lost faith in his ability to govern.

At a hastily-arranged media briefing just before the protest began, Tung promised to listen more closely to the public, but brushed off questions from reporters.

"We will respond to the aspirations of our citizens and will take actions to allay public dissatisfaction and improve the effectiveness of the government," Tung said.

Some of those gathered outside the legislative building were members of the Falun Gong spiritual group, which is outlawed in China but is still legal in Hong Kong.

The government bowed to public pressure on Saturday and withdrew a clause in the subversion bill which would have allowed it to ban groups if they were blacklisted on the mainland.

Critics say the bill poses the biggest threat to basic civil rights since the former British colony returned to Chinese rule in 1997, and could lead to more interference from Beijing in Hong Kong's affairs.

Tung no longer appears to have enough support in the legislature to push through important policies, which could add to political and economic uncertainties for the remaining four years of his term.

Demands are growing for him to resign or at least sack some unpopular ministers. Some analysts say the entire ministerial structure of the government must also be re-examined because it fails to reflect broader public concerns.

Tsang Yok-sing, leader of the largest pro-Beijing party, called on Wednesday for Security Secretary Regina Ip to be replaced. The tough-talking Ip has alienated people during the months she has promoted the bill.

Hong Kong's constitution requires it to enact a subversion law, which Beijing wants passed as soon as possible to prevent hostile forces from using this city to subvert the mainland.

Organizers of the vigil want the law passed only after universal suffrage is established in Hong Kong and people can finally choose their own leaders.

Hong Kong's constitution allows for universal suffrage after 2007, but the government refuses to open the issue for debate.

Some of the protestors said they are planning another pro-democracy rally on Sunday.