Protesters wearing masks in defiance of a recently imposed ban on face coverings perform at a shopping mall in Hong Kong, Oct.13, 2019.
Protesters wearing masks in defiance of a recently imposed ban on face coverings perform at a shopping mall in Hong Kong, Oct.13, 2019.

(Anita Powell and Yihua Lee of VOA Mandarin Service contributed to this article.)

HONG KONG — Hong Kong pro-democracy groups scaled down demonstrations over the weekend, as government officials increasingly categorize the protests as a threat to public safety and equate violence committed by activists with domestic terrorism.

For the last four months, Hong Kong has been disrupted by often massive and violent protests against what is seen as Beijing's efforts to erode the autonomy and civil liberties that the Chinese-ruled city enjoys under its "one-country -two systems" model.

Rainy protests

On a rainy Sunday, over 1,000 protesters lined the balconies of a shopping mall in central Hong Kong, chanting "fight for freedom."

WATCH: Anita Powell's video report


Some masked activists in the mall disrupted a suspected Chinese-owned restaurant by sending in hundreds of fake food orders on electronic kiosks. 

At police headquarters a group of senior citizens called the "Silver-Haired Marchers" held a weekend-long sit-in at police headquarters to show support for the predominately young protesters.

A group of demonstrators made paper folding cranes at an event in in Kowloon, across from Hong Kong Island.

However, an expected rally in the Causeway Bay shopping district did not happen, in an area where last week tens of thousands participated in a march across the city center.
 
Riot police fired tear gas at a protest rally on Sunday in an area where last week a protester was shot with live ammunition.

In June, participation in anti-government demonstrations peaked when nearly 2 million came out to opposed a now-withdrawn extradition bill that critics said would give Beijing wide power to arrest Hong Kong residents.

Sinister character

While the vast majority of protests have been peaceful, there have been increasing incidents of violence during which masked activists have vandalized businesses and the city subway system, and attacked police with bricks and homemade gasoline bombs.

Anti-government protesters vandalize Bank of China branch during a protest in Tsuen Wan in Hong Kong, Oct. 13, 2019.

Some peaceful protesters defend these aggressive tactics as necessary because the Hong Kong government, they say, continues to ignore the will of the people.

"If the peaceful rally can't have any further influence to the government, then the violence may be unavoidable," said Feng, a protester who would only give his last name.

Pro-Beijing officials in Hong Kong are increasingly using these incidents of violence and destruction by some protesters to define and discredit the pro-democracy movement.

"It's no longer just ordinary civil protest. It has taken on a fairly sinister character, close to terrorism," said Regina Ip, a member of the Legislative Council, Hong Kong's legislature,  and the head of the pro-China New People's Party.

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam has also emphasized the public safety threat from the protesters and said she would not rule out asking the ruling Chinese government to help quell the protests if needed to restore public order.

Intimidation tactics

The Hong Kong government has increasingly cracked down on the democracy demonstrations, recently forbidding protesters from wearing masks to hide their identifies, a measure that could also expose them to economic retribution.

An anti government protester is detained by police at Tseun Wan, Hong Kong, Oct.13, 2019.

In August, Cathay Pacific Airways, reportedly under pressure from China, suspended and subsequently fired 20 pilots and cabin crew staff for participating in the protest movement, according to the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions.

Opponents say the government is exaggerating the level of violence committed by radical elements in the democracy movement to intimidate the vast majority of peaceful protesters and to justify emergency public safety measures and the  increased use of force.

"We have a (degree of) unregulated activity, but it's not up to a state of, objectively speaking, emergency state," said James To, a Hong Kong legislator with the opposition Democratic Party.

Police have used water cannons, tear gas and rubber bullets against demonstrators. Since June, over 2,000 protesters have been arrested, and one-third of those facing prison time are teenagers under 18 years old.

Some protesters say escalating violence from their side is a reaction to the increased use of force by police.

Riot police officers patrol Tai Po district during an anti-government protest in Hong Kong, China, Oct. 13, 2019.

"The police force to using excessive force to counter our actions, so we are forced to upgrade the use of (our) force," said a masked protester providing emergency medical aid at the sidelines of a protest over the weekend.

Police said in a statement Sunday that they use "minimum necessary force to disperse protesters," and they warn "rioters to stop their illegal acts" before the "deployment of tear gas."

Hong Kong officials credit increased law enforcement for the downturn in turnout at democracy demonstrators over the weekend.

There is also speculation, however, that the democracy protests organizers may temporarily suspend mass actions to allow November 24 Hong Kong District Council elections to proceed, and not give the government cause to cancel them.