Hong Kong’s Lunar New Year celebration descended into chaotic scenes as protesters and police, who fired warning shots into the air, clashed over a street market selling fish balls and other local holiday delicacies, leaving dozens injured and arrested.
The violence is the worst in Hong Kong since pro-democracy protests rocked the city in 2014, leaving a growing trust gap between the public and authorities.
Activists angered over authorities’ attempts to crack down on the food hawkers in a crowded Kowloon neighborhood held running battles with police into the early hours of Tuesday.
Protesters pelted officers with bottles and pieces of trash. Some threw garbage cans, plastic safety barriers and wood from shipping pallets at them. They also set fires on the street.
The unrest started when authorities tried to prevent unlicensed street food sellers from operating Monday night in Mong Kok, a working-class district. The hawkers have become a local tradition during the Lunar New Year holiday but this year authorities tried to remove them.
The hawkers were backed by activists who objected to the crackdown over concerns that Hong Kong’s local culture is disappearing as Beijing tightens its hold on the semi-autonomous city.
The scuffles underscore how tensions remain unresolved more than a year after the end of pro-democracy protests that gripped the city. Mong Kok, a popular and densely populated shopping and entertainment district, was one of the neighbourhoods where activists occupied streets for about 11 weeks in late 2014, capturing world headlines with their demands for greater electoral freedom.
Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying told reporters a mob had attacked police officers and journalists, and said the perpetrators would be prosecuted.
Police cars and public property were damaged, fires started and bricks and other objects thrown at police officers, including those already injured and lying on the ground, Leung said.
“I believe the public can see for themselves from TV news reports the seriousness of the situation. The (Hong Kong) government strongly condemns such violent acts. The police will apprehend the mobs and bring them to justice,” Leung said.
Hong Kong police said in a statement that the protesters had ignored their warnings to get off the street and shoved officers, who responded with batons and pepper spray.
Police said late Tuesday that 61 people ranging in age from 15 to 70 were arrested on suspicion of unlawful assembly, assaulting police, resisting arrest, obstructing officers, possession of offensive weapons and disorderly conduct in a public place.
Two warning shots were fired during the incident, Acting District Commander Yau Siu-kei said.