Chaos broke out in an upscale Hong Kong mall on Tuesday night as riot police clashed with pro-democracy protesters who were marking Christmas Eve with a series of flashmob rallies.
Riot police used pepper spray and batons to beat back angry crowds after plainclothes officers made arrests inside Harbour City, a luxury mall in Tsim Sha Tsui, one of the city’s busiest shopping districts.
Hong Kong’s many malls have become regular protest venues as the city convulses from more than six months of increasingly violent rallies pushing for greater democratic freedoms and police accountability.
The last month has seen a comparative lull in street violence.
But posts on online forums used by more hardline protesters have called for pop-up demonstrations over the Christmas and New Year period targeting shopping districts.
Hundreds of black-clad protesters gathered in Harbour City on Tuesday evening, chanting slogans.
Tensions soon rose when a group of plainclothes police were discovered and surrounded within the sprawling shopping centre, an AFP reporter on the scene said.
The plainclothes officers made multiple arrests as the crowds threw objects and heckled them.
Riot police quickly arrived at the scene, one aiming a shotgun at protesters as shops quickly shuttered.
Flashmob rallies formed in at least three other locations on Tuesday night with riot police trying to disperse crowds shouting chants and heckling officers.
A former British colony with a sizeable Christian population, Hong Kong is having a distinctly muted Christmas this year.
Swathes of the population are seething against Beijing’s rule and the semi-autonomous city’s local government.
The months of protest have helped tipped a financial hub already battered by the trade war into recession and sparked intense political polarization.
Christmas Eve is usually a major night for retailers and bars, with key districts pedestrianized.
But police said they would not close roads to traffic this year fearing protesters might use the opportunity to gather.
Hong Kong’s protests were initially sparked by a now-abandoned attempt to allow extraditions to the authoritarian mainland.
They have since morphed into a popular revolt against Beijing’s rule, with spiralling fears that the city is losing some of its unique liberties.
Local leader Carrie Lam eventually scrapped the extradition bill but both she and Beijing have refused any further concessions.
Among the demands being made by protesters is an inquiry into the police, an amnesty for the more than 6,000 people arrested and the right to elect Hong Kong’s leader.
The fall-off in violence came after hundreds of hardcore protesters were arrested during a campus siege – and after the pro-democracy camp won a landslide in local elections – last month.
That has given city leaders and police some breathing room. But public anger remains palpable.
Earlier this month a huge crowd of some 800,000 people marched peacefully.
The same group behind that rally have applied for permission to hold a similar march on New Year’s Day.
Nonetheless Beijing has thrown is weight behind Lam and dismissed the movement’s grievances.
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