HONG KONG: Hong Kong anti-government protesters marched through Christmas-decorated shopping malls, chanting slogans and forcing one mall to close early on Wednesday (Dec 25), as police fired tear gas to disperse crowds gathering on nearby streets.
The protests have turned more confrontational over the festive season, though earlier in December they had been largely peaceful after pro-democracy candidates overwhelmingly won district council elections.
Hong Kong's pro-Beijing leaders have made no concessions to the protesters, despite acknowledging their defeat in the polls, and the rallies have turned more confrontational over the festive period.
"Confrontation is expected, it doesn't matter if it's Christmas," said Chan, a 28-year-old restaurant worker who was part of a crowd which exchanged insults with police outside a shopping centre in the Mong Kok district.
"I’m disappointed the government still didn’t respond to any of our ... demands. We continue to come out even if we don’t have much hope," said Chan, who only gave his surname.
Riot police patrolled past protest hotspots while tourists and shoppers, many wearing Santa hats or reindeer antlers, strolled past.
There were no major clashes, but with impromptu crowds forming to shout abuse at the deeply unpopular officers, who have been accused of using excessive force, police briefly fired tear gas in Mong Kok, a popular protest area.
Police have described their responses to the unrest as reactive and restrained.
Hundreds of protesters, dressed in black and wearing face masks, descended on shopping malls around the Chinese-ruled city, shouting popular slogans such as "Liberate Hong Kong! Revolution of our times!"
Police arrested several people in a shopping mall in the Sha Tin district after pepper-spraying them. The mall closed early, with staff directing customers to leave. Other shopping centres remained open.
Baton-wielding police fired tear gas on Tuesday at thousands of protesters who barricaded roads, spray-painted slogans on buildings and trashed a Starbucks cafe and an HSBC branch. A water cannon truck, flanked by armoured jeeps, roamed the streets, but was not heavily used.
Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam said in a Facebook post on Wednesday that many members of the public and tourists were disappointed that their "Christmas Eve celebrations have been ruined".
"Such illegal acts have not only dampened the festive mood but also adversely affected local businesses," she said.
The Hospital Authority said 25 people had been injured overnight, including one man who fell from the second to first floor of a shopping mall as he tried to escape the police, and another who fell from the rooftop of a restaurant. It was unclear if the latter was related to the protests.
HSBC has become embroiled in a controversy involving a police crackdown earlier this month on a fund-raising platform supporting protesters. HSBC denied any link between the crackdown and its earlier closure of a bank account tied to the group, but remains the target of protester rage.
Starbucks has also become a target of the demonstrators' anger after the daughter of the founder of Maxim's Caterers, which owns the local franchise, publicly condemned the protesters.
The protests started more than six months ago against a now-withdrawn Bill which would have allowed extraditions to mainland China where courts are controlled by the Communist Party.
They have since evolved into a broader pro-democracy movement, with demonstrators angry at what they perceive as increased meddling by Beijing in the freedoms promised to the former British colony when it returned to Chinese rule in 1997.
China denies interfering and says it is committed to the "one country, two systems" formula put in place at that time and has blamed foreign forces for fomenting unrest.
"I am here because I want the world to support us," said 30-year-old Terry, in the Sha Tin mall. "We have been here for six months already so it makes no difference for us to be here on Christmas Day."
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