HONG KONG (AP) — Thousands of black-clad protesters marched in central Hong Kong as part of multiple pro-democracy rallies Tuesday urging China’s Communist Party to “return power to the people” as the party celebrated its 70th year of rule.
Protesters defied a police ban as they marched along a broad city thoroughfare, chanting anti-China slogans and some carrying Chinese flags defaced with a black cross.
“They are squeezing our necks so we don’t breathe the air of freedom,” said King Chan, a 57-year-old homemaker who came out to protest with her husband.
Many protesters tossed wads of fake “hell” bank notes usually use at funerals into the air. “The leaders who won’t listen to our voice, this is for them,” said marcher Ray Luk.
The protests began in early June over a now-shelved extradition bill that activists say was an example of how freedoms and citizen rights in the semi-Chinese territory’s autonomy are being eroded. The movement has since snowballed into an anti-Chinese campaign.
Several smaller rallies are occurring in further districts under a tight security clampdown. At least 11 subway stations were closed, and scores of police stood guard outside government offices.
At the Wong Tai Sin area, riot police twice fired tear gas to disperse hundreds of protesters. Outside a city hall in the Tuen Mun area, police with batons charged at protesters who hurled umbrellas and other objects in their direction.
“Today we are out to tell the Communist Party that Hong Kong people have nothing to celebrate,” said activist Lee Cheuk-yan as he led the downtown march. “We are mourning that in 70 years of Communist Party rule, the democratic rights of people in Hong Kong and China are being denied. We will continue to fight.”
Activists carried banners saying “End dictatorial rule, return power to the people.”
Many shopping malls across Hong Kong were shut amid fears of chaos. Posters in the city called for the Oct. 1 anniversary to be marked as “A Day of Grief.”
Dressed in a black T-shirt and dark jeans, 40-year-old Bob Wong said his clothing expressed “mourning” over “the death of Hong Kong’s future.”
The popular LIHKG online chat forum used by protesters was inaccessible on cellphones, a move believed to have been made to prevent communication by protesters.
On Tuesday morning, as the city’s government marked the anniversary in a solemn ceremony, police used pepper spray to break up a brief scuffle between Beijing supporters and a small group of pro-democracy protesters. Police lined up to separate the groups, but some minor scuffles ensued. Two pro-Beijing protesters were arrested.
Hong Kong Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung told hundreds of guests at a reception that the city has become “unrecognizable” due to violence by protesters. Cheung was representing the city’s leader, Carrie Lam, who led a delegation joining the National Day festivities in Beijing.
Cheung said Beijing fully supports the “one country, two systems” framework that gives Hong Kong freedoms and rights not enjoyed on the mainland. The system was implemented when the former British colony returned to Chinese rule in 1997.
Police warned Monday that hard-line protesters may engage in extreme acts that are “one step closer to terrorism,” such as killing police officers, posing as police officials to kill civilians and large-scale arson, including at gas stations. Activists ridiculed the assertion as a scare tactic.
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