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Pro-democracy demonstrators hold Esteladas (Catalan separatist flag) and flashlights during a protest in Hong Kong’s Chate...

Hong Kong protesters rally in support of Catalan movement

HONG KONG (AP) — A few hundred Hong Kong pro-democracy protesters rallied Thursday in support of separatists in Spain’s Catalonia region, as a Chinese official accused them of colluding with overseas movements.

Organizers billed the event as a show of solidarity for the Catalan movement, which was sparked by fury over lengthy prison sentences for leaders of the region’s separatist movement.

Thursday’s turnout was a sliver of the many thousands who have participated in a series of increasingly violent and chaotic protests since June amid increasing fears about Beijing’s tightening grip on the semi-autonomous Chinese city.

Their demands include elections for the city’s top leader and an inquiry into alleged police brutality, but not independence from China. Organizers were careful to skirt the issue, with online posters advertising the event with a slogan “United, we stand for freedom,” but did not make any mention of secession.

Violent protests erupted in wealthy Catalonia this month after a court sentenced separatist leaders to up to 13 years in prison for an effort to declare the region’s independence in 2017.

There have been parallels been the two movements, with the Catalan protesters adopting fluid Hong Kong tactics inspired by martial arts legend Bruce Lee’s “Be water” philosophy. Both movements have occupied airports to disrupt flights and Catalonia flags have been seen at Hong Kong rallies.

“The situation with Catalonia is similar but not the same,” said Ricky Chan, a civil servant.

“Many people think Hong Kong should fight for independence, but I don’t think Hong Kong should fight for independence now,” said Chan, 25.

Waving a large Catalan flag, Paladin Cheng said he supported Hong Kong independence and didn’t worry about whether it would backfire by giving China’s Communist rulers another excuse to crack down.

“If we don’t have action for independence, Beijing will create another crime for us,” said the 38-year-old salesman.

Ahead of the event, a senior Chinese official denounced Hong Kong’s protesters, accusing them of colluding with movements overseas.

“A virus has been running rampant in Hong Kong, which is even more deadly than SARS. Its name is street violence,” said Xie Feng, commissioner of China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs office in Hong Kong, referring to the 2003 outbreak of the SARS disease that killed about 300 people.

“The true motive of the opposition in Hong Kong and the foreign forces behind them is just to mess up the city, overthrow the legitimate government, seize the jurisdiction, and ultimately destroy ‘One country, two systems,’ by turning Hong Kong into an independent or semi-independent political entity,” Xie said at a forum, adding it’s “wishful thinking.”

China took control of Hong Kong from Britain in 1997 under the “One country, two systems” formula, under which communist rulers in Beijing promised to let the city maintain its own legal and financial system and civil liberties unseen on the mainland. But Hong Kong residents fears Beijing is reneging on those promises.

A Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman in Beijing blasted U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi after she tweeted in support of the Hong Kong protesters.

“My full support and admiration goes to those who have taken to the streets week after week in non-violent protest to fight for democracy and the rule of law in #HongKong,” Pelosi tweeted along with a picture of her with Hong Kong pro-democracy figures Jimmy Lai and Martin Lee.

The spokeswoman, Hua Chunying, said “political figures like Nancy Pelosi confuse right and wrong, beautify the violent crimes in Hong Kong as non-violent protest, and support and bolster the violent anti-China demonstrators who disrupted Hong Kong.”

Associated Press news assistant Liu Zheng contributed to this story.