by Jerome TAYLOR / Yan ZHAO
Strife-torn Hong Kong marked the 70th anniversary of communist China’s founding with defiant “Day of Grief” protests on Tuesday as pro-democracy activists ignored a police ban and took to the streets in multiple neighbourhoods.
The international finance hub is on edge as protesters vow to overshadow Beijing’s festivities, stepping up their nearly four months of protests pushing for greater democratic freedoms and police accountability.
Sunday witnessed some of the most sustained clashes in weeks between police and hardcore protesters.
Thousands began marching through the district of Causeway Bay on Tuesday afternoon, despite authorities rejecting an application to hold a rally there and police warning people against joining “unlawful assemblies”.
Usually a popular shopping district packed with tourists, Causeway Bay has become a regular battleground between protesters and police this summer.
Many of the malls and shops in the district were shuttered as protesters chanted “Stand with Hong Kong, fight for freedom!” and other popular slogans.
“Three months on and our five demands have yet to be achieved. We need to continue our fight,” a protester, wearing a mask from the cult film and comic book “V for Vendetta”, told AFP.
Smaller unsanctioned rallies also kicked off in the districts of Wanchai, Sha Tin and Tsuen Wan and outside the British consulate.
Democracy protesters are determined to take some of the shine off the anniversary celebrations in Beijing which were marked with a huge military parade through Tiananmen Square under the gaze of China’s strongman President Xi Jinping.
Among those watching the parade was Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam, who has historically low approval ratings at home as public anger boils over Beijing’s increased control of the semi-autonomous city.
Millions have hit the streets in record-breaking numbers while hardcore activists have repeatedly clashed with police, in the biggest challenge to China’s rule since the city’s 1997 handover by Britain.
In a vivid illustration of the political insecurity now coursing through Hong Kong, city officials watched a morning harbourside flag-raising ceremony from the safety of the nearby convention centre.
Since the 1997 handover, officials had always attended the ceremony outside, even during torrential downpours.
But popular protests that erupted in June have made it increasingly risky for officials to appear in public.
A flag-raising ceremony on July 1 — the anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover — was also watched from indoors as protesters flooded the streets and later laid siege to the city’s legislature.
Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung, delivered an address in which he praised China’s development over the last 70 years.
But he said officials recognised they needed “new thinking to try to address deep-rooted problems” in Hong Kong.
Throughout the morning police ramped up security checks and conducted frequent stop and searches while authorities announced the closure of a dozen subway stations.
But the measures did little to halt crowds appearing in the afternoon.
Rival pro-China rallies were also held.
In the morning, a crowd of some 50 people waved flags and chanted “Long live the motherland!”.
“We are Chinese and the whole nation is celebrating,” Kitty Chan, 30, told AFP.
Hong Kong’s protests were initially sparked by a now-scrapped plan to allow extraditions to the mainland but have since snowballed into a much wider movement of popular anger against city leaders and Beijing.
Among the demands made by protesters is an inquiry into the police, an amnesty for the more than 1,500 people arrested and universal suffrage — all of which have been rejected by Beijing and Lam.
© Agence France-Presse