HONG KONG — As Hong Kong marked the 18th anniversary on Wednesday of its handover from Britain to China, thousands of residents took to the streets in what has become an annual tradition of rallying for greater democracy. But in contrast to last year, when by the organizers’ estimate the turnout was more than half a million, the crowd this year was tiny.
Its notably smaller size — the police estimate was 20,000, which would make it the smallest since 2007 — seemed to speak to the demonstrators’ exhaustion, after months of intense but unfruitful political bickering, and to their frustration over the way ahead.
“I’m so upset. None of my friends would come with me this year,” said Lam Ip, a 30-year-old civil servant who in the end came on his own. “They said that the government wouldn’t even give in to the massive protests last year. ‘Why would they fear a march?’ ”
Daisy Chan, a spokeswoman for the march’s organizer, the Civil Human Rights Front, said: “There’s no longer any urgent topics on the table that could draw many people to the streets. We need some time to contemplate our next step.”
Last year, the throngs who braved sweltering heat and intermittent tropical downpours to pace through the skyscraper-lined streets of the city’s commercial center had hoped that dogged persistence would win them a free and democratic election of the city’s next leader.
That hope, which ebbed and flowed for nearly a year, reached a dead end two weeks ago when a vote in the local legislature ensured that only 1,200 people among the five million adults in Hong Kong would have a say in the choice of a new chief executive in 2017.
Despite the uncertainty over how and when Hong Kong’s democratic system will evolve, many of the demonstrators on Wednesday were pleased with the government’s failure on June 18 to enact what Beijing had called “the most democratic system ever” in Hong Kong, a plan that would have given residents a direct vote for the city’s leader for the first time.
The catch was that voters would be able to choose from among only two or three candidates approved by a committee dominated by people loyal to Beijing. More than a third of the city’s legislators rejected the plan, enough to defeat it.
At an official event Wednesday morning celebrating the anniversary of the handover, Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying expressed his resentment that “Hong Kong has missed a valuable opportunity.”
With the 2017 election fated to follow the same procedure that handed him a five-year term in 2012, Mr. Leung said his government would now focus on Hong Kong’s economy and living standards, instead of dwelling on democratic development.
“As the experience of some European democracies shows, democratic systems and procedures are no panacea for economic and livelihood issues,” he said, as a debt crisis in Europe rattled financial markets and threatened European unity.
Later in the day, thousands of marchers streamed into the commercial heart of Hong Kong. Most of them were young, and many had participated in the Occupy movement last year, which paralyzed parts of the city for 79 days in an ultimately unsuccessful bid to force the authorities into making political concessions.
While Beijing may take heart at the smaller pro-democracy march this year, it nonetheless faces a new generation of activists who have proved their readiness to defy the law and the police for their political ideals.
Many young demonstrators, like Karkar Chin, a student at the Chinese University of Hong Kong who turned 18 at the height of the protests last year — a day after the police used tear gas against protesters — said that she had registered as a voter to put more democracy advocates in Hong Kong’s legislature.
People who were born as late as 1997, the year of the handover, will be old enough to vote in local elections this year, potentially empowering even more politicians skeptical of the Communist Party’s authority. An increasing number of these young people eschew a Chinese identity and are gravitating instead to a “Hong Konger” identity.
Several groups fund-raising on the sidelines of the march on Wednesday, like one called Civic Passion, were the product of such “localist” sentiment. The group and its overwhelmingly young followers advocate more confrontational tactics to combat what they see as mainland Chinese influences in Hong Kong that are detrimental to the city’s values.
On Sunday, clashes broke out in the Mong Kok district when several localist groups confronted women who were singing and dancing to songs in Mandarin, the language of the mainland, rather than the local language, Cantonese.
The authorities are left with limited tools to win over these young people. An attempt by the Hong Kong government in 2012 to mandate “national education” in local schools, an effort to build Chinese identity among Hong Kong students, instead led to huge protests. It also catapulted Joshua Wong — who was only 14 when he joined, and later led, the efforts against the proposed curriculum — to international fame. Mr. Wong went on to become a prominent leader in the street protests last fall, and the education plan has been shelved indefinitely.
In addition, a plan in 2003 to enact an internal security law known as Article 23, which would punish sedition offenders in Hong Kong with long prison sentences, created the tradition of a large, pro-democracy march every July 1.
On Wednesday afternoon, after the Chinese government announced that it had passed a broad national security law asserting the importance of guarding the Communist Party’s interests in all corners of the globe, and even outer space, Mr. Leung promptly clarified that it did not apply to Hong Kong and that his government did not have any plan to enact Article 23 during its current term.
“C.Y. Leung would not touch these sensitive issues,” said Willy Lam, a history and China studies professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. “I think he remembers 2003 very well, when half a million people demonstrated. He might provoke another Occupy movement if he tries.”