HONG KONG - Christmas festivities turned tense in Hong Kong late Wednesday when police fired tear gas and used pepper spray on anti-government protesters and made arrests amid a second day of hostile confrontations.
The latest clash came as the semi-autonomous city’s Beijing-appointed leader, Carrie Lam, condemned what she called “reckless and selfish rioters” for ruining the celebrations. The Hong Kong chief executive said the government would “make sure those who break the law suffer the consequences.”
The clashes occurred as activists held flash mob protests in malls and shopping districts across Hong Kong on Christmas Day. Police also stopped and searched many young people dressed in black — the signature dress code of activists who have been involved in the anti-government movement since it started in June.
In Mongkok, a bustling downtown shopping district, riot police armed with shields exchanged insults with protesters, shoppers and passersby before firing multiple rounds of tear gas at them and making arrests. Officers were heard calling protesters “trash.” It was not clear if police were provoked.
Scores of people had gathered on the streets in the area, some waving U.S. and Hong Kong independence flags.
One man was pepper-sprayed after arguing with police. He was wrestled to the ground and arrested on suspicion of assaulting an officer, reported public broadcaster RTHK. Police used pepper spray again later as a crowd of onlookers heckled officers, it said.
An outdoor food stall was engulfed in the noxious gas as staff threw away fish balls, tofu and snacks that had been contaminated.
Hundreds of riot police officers and police vehicles remained in the area as of late evening, as protesters continued to shout slogans to condemn the police. Journalists and passersby were stopped and searched.
There were also arrests and tense confrontations between police and protesters in upmarket shopping malls in the out-of-town Shatin and Kowloon Bay districts, after activists marched, some singing the protest’s unofficial anthem, “Glory to Hong Kong.” Many shops closed early.
Police were hostile to journalists, shoving some with shields and shooing them away. A number of journalists became drenched in pepper spray when police shot the irritant at them, reported RTHK.
Large numbers of riot police were standing guard in Tsim Sha Tsui, an area with luxury hotels and shops popular with tourists, stopping and searching mostly young people. On Christmas Eve, police shot multiple rounds of tear gas in the area, engulfing the tourist spot adorned with decorations.
At an upscale shopping mall, Times Square in Causeway Bay, some protesters dressed as snowmen, reindeer and Santa Claus, amusing passersby.
Large crowds had gathered in shopping malls since Christmas Eve in response to online calls to “go shopping” to voice their discontent with the government and to demand greater democracy.
Wednesday's scenes of chaos were already less intense than those on Christmas Eve, when tear gas and rubber bullets were fired in several locations and police severely beat activists in confrontations. Protesters blocked roads, vandalized businesses seen as pro-government and threw sporadic fuel bombs.
The anti-government movement in Hong Kong, sparked by a controversial extradition law, shows no signs of abating. Protesters say they will not give up unless the government meets their political demands, which include universal suffrage and an independent investigation into police brutality.
The Christmas unrest broke out after a few weeks of relative calm in a city that has been roiled by the civil unrest that had seen more than 6,000 people arrested, some as young as 12. The brief period of calm came after violent clashes at two universities and after the pro-democracy camp last month won a landslide victory in local district elections, which yielded no direct political power.
Police said 105 people were arrested on Tuesday for allegedly taking part in an illegal assembly. They said the crowd, including teenagers as young as 13, shouted slogans, occupied pedestrian walkways and caused inconvenience to the public.
A protester who gave his surname as Chan said police were overreacting to what were meant to be peaceful Christmas protests and their actions intimidated members of the public and instigated conflicts.
“The presence of so many riot police officers is itself a provocative gesture. Nothing would have happened if they weren’t there, and now they’re putting all the blame on protesters,” he said.