Hong Kong defies China anniversary with 'Day of Grief' rallies and clashes

Yan ZHAO, Jerome TAYLOR
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Protesters burned a Chinese national flag during a march through the streets of Hong Kong

Protesters burned a Chinese national flag during a march through the streets of Hong Kong (AFP Photo/Mohd RASFAN)

Hong Kong (AFP) - Strife-torn Hong Kong on Tuesday marked the 70th anniversary of Communist China's founding with defiant "Day of Grief" protests and fresh clashes with police as pro-democracy activists ignored a ban on marches and took to the streets.

Activists are determined to overshadow Beijing's festivities, using the anniversary to step up their nearly four months of protests pushing for greater democratic freedoms and police accountability.

Tens of thousands marched through the streets of Hong Kong island on Tuesday afternoon, despite authorities rejecting an application to hold a rally there as police warned people "to leave the scene as soon as possible".

Smaller crowds rallied in nearly a dozen other districts with police firing tear gas and rubber bullets at hardcore protesters in at least four separate locations.

In Tsuen Wan, masked protesters used umbrellas and projectiles to beat riot officers after they made a series of arrests, forcing the police to retreat into a nearby town hall.

Authorities also said protesters threw corrosive liquid at officers in Tuen Mun, posting pictures of a policeman with painful chemical burns to his torso and holes in his uniform.

The biggest march remained on Hong Kong island where huge crowds tried to make their way towards the building that represents China's central government, a previous target for protesters. They were halted by lions of riot police who pushes the crowds back.

At one point along the march protesters threw eggs at a portrait of Xi Jinping and tore down large placards celebrating the 70th anniversary, trampling the discarded slogans under foot.

"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.

- Leader watches Beijing parade -

The protests came as lavish celebrations were taking place in Beijing, including a huge military parade through Tiananmen Square under the gaze of China's strongman Xi.

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.

Throughout the morning police ramped up security checks and conducted frequent stop and searches while authorities announced the closure of 15 subway stations.

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.