HONG KONG - Thousands of Hong Kong residents appealed to China on New Year's Day to allow full democracy to be introduced soon in the city, as opposition lawmakers pressed forward with a mass resignation plan later this month.

Congregating outside the city's historic domed legislature, protesters carried colourful banners with slogans such as Democracy Now! and made their way to Beijing's representative office.

Some demonstrators held aloft portraits of Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, demanding the release of the prominent activist and writer, jailed last week for 11 years on a subversion charge.

Organisers said more than 30,000 protesters turned out for the New Year's Day return our right to universal suffrage march. Police put the number at around 9,000.

Hundreds of police erected steel barricades as protesters with loudhailers converged on Beijing's liaison office in the former British colony, returned to Chinese rule in 1997.

There were minor scuffles when police tried to prevent a small number of protesters from storming the office.

A group of five pro-democracy legislators plan to resign en masse from the city's legislature, following the release of a political reform blueprint for elections in 2012, which democracy advocates say does not go far enough.

The subsequent city-wide by-elections in Hong Kong's five major districts will trigger what the liberals say amounts to a symbolic referendum on full democracy.

Beijing has already promised to allow a full-scale election in Hong Kong in 2017 for the city's leader. But recent signs, including comments by pro-Beijing figures, have suggested Beijing may only allow a power-preserving version of democracy with rules stacked against opposition candidates.

Hong Kong's mini-constitution guarantees full democracy as an ultimate aim but the city's seven million people now have no direct say in their leader.
Beijing remains wary of upsurges of public discontent in Hong Kong, with Chinese premier Wen Jiabao recently warning Hong Kong's bowtie-wearing leader Donald Tsang to be wary of deep-rooted conflicts. In 2003, half a million protesters spilt onto the streets in anger at the administration of Hong Kong's then-leader Tung Chee-hwa, who resigned soon afterwards.

(Reporting by James Pomfret; Editing by Ron Popeski)