HONG KONG – Tens of thousands of people marched on Wednesday in Hong Kong's biggest annual protest calling for greater democracy as well as improved economic relief measures and investor protection during the financial crisis.

The march on the 12th anniversary of Hong Kong's return from British to Chinese rule in 1997 drew a cross-section of Hong Kong society from middle-class professionals to blue collar laborers and foreign helpers as the city grapples with recession and a jobless rate at a nearly four-year high of 5.3 percent.

Organizers said 76,000 people attended, a higher figure than previous years. Police however put the number at 26,000.

Several thousand retail investors who bought structured products linked to the collapsed U.S. investment bank Lehman Brothers called on the government to increase pressure on banks who sold them such products to compensate all their losses.

We want the banks to return the money, we've been cheated, said 45-year-old Li Hon-min, who saw around US$30,000 of his savings wiped out. The government is helping the banks, not us.

The marchers massed in a downtown park on a scorching summer day, huddling under umbrellas and fanning themselves before setting off on the march that choked up roads for several kilometers to the city's government headquarters.

The grassroots are struggling a lot, said Sam Pang, a 26-year-old designer of punk clothing who held a banner calling for more efficient government. Hong Kong is not being ruled very well during the financial crisis, he added.

Many protesters also called for swifter democratic reforms.

Since 1997 democracy advocates have been frustrated by Hong Kong's glacial progress on electoral reforms, with Beijing ruling several years ago that full democracy wouldn't be possible till 2017, and not 2012 as called for by a majority in Hong Kong.

Hong Kong people will always fight for democracy and never give up no matter what, said veteran democrat Martin Lee during the march where people yelled slogans like I love democracy.

Earlier this year, Hong Kong's leader Donald Tsang angered democrats by saying the city would delay a highly anticipated consultation on tweaking the electoral process for its leader and legislature in 2012, given the need to focus on the economy.

Everyone can see the government is delaying again and again, said Anson Chan, a former head of the civil service.

In 2003, half a million people took to the streets on July 1 in a watershed anti-government protest, with subsequent rallies seen as an indicator of public discontent with government.

(Reporting by James Pomfret and Venus Wu; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani)