HONG KONG - Riot police stormed shopping malls for a third day of Christmas protests in Hong Kong on Thursday and detained a number of people after masked protesters roamed through shops, some throwing paint and disrupting restaurant services.
Christmas in Hong Kong is usually bustling with commercial activity, tourists and local people flocking to shops and restaurants and strolling on both sides of the scenic Victoria Harbor to watch festive illuminations.
But during this holiday, streets and malls in shopping districts are filled with tension, after police fired tear gas, rubber bullets and pepper spray at protesters and beat and arrested many of them. They also conducted indiscriminate stop-and-search procedures on shoppers, passersby and journalists during the past three nights.
On Christmas Eve, protesters blocked roads, vandalized businesses seen as pro-government and threw sporadic fuel bombs but protests on Christmas and Boxing days were less intense.
On Thursday, hundreds of mostly black-clad protesters shouted slogans and marched through several shopping malls across the city in response to online calls to disrupt business in the Asian financial hub during the Christmas holidays.
Their actions were part of the six-month anti-government movement to pressure authorities to meet their political demands, which include universal suffrage and an independent investigation into police brutality.
The anti-government movement in Hong Kong, sparked by a controversial extradition law, is showing no signs of abating. The extradition law, which would have allowed individuals to be sent to mainland China for trials, was belatedly scrapped three months after the initial protests in June, but resentment against authorities has risen because of police violence against demonstrators and the government’s refusal to meet other demands.
Protesters say they are now venting their anger towards the police and the government, which they accuse of serving Beijing rather than ordinary Hong Kongers.
Riot police on Thursday stormed into a mall in out-of-town Tai Po and made several arrests, after masked protesters roamed through the mall, chanting slogans such as "liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times" and "disband the police force immediately," reported public broadcaster RTHK. Some protesters had targeted a restaurant earlier, scattering menus and packets of condiments all over a table, the report said. Many restaurants and shops pulled down their shutters.
The confrontations between protesters and riot police continued late into the night, with people cursing the police, pointing laser pointers and throwing bottles at officers, while police pointed guns, pepper spray and bright lights at journalists and onlookers.
Earlier in the day, black-clad, masked protesters also roamed another shopping mall in Mongkok, a bustling downtown shopping district and shouted slogans.
Tension remained high in Mongkok at night as police lined up dozens of protesters against shuttered shops, ordered them to put their hands up and searched them.
A large number of riot police were patrolling in a mall in Tsim Sha Tsui, a tourist spot with luxury hotels and shops, and stopping and checking the identity of many passersby. On Christmas Eve, police shot multiple rounds of tear gas, engulfing the area.
Police said they arrested 43, including teenagers as young as 15, in Mongkok in the early hours of Thursday for illegal assembly.
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 thousands were arrested in violent clashes at two universities and after the pro-democracy camp last month won a landslide victory in local district elections, which have no direct political power.
Meanwhile, the Hong Kong government issued a statement on Thursday, insisting that it has "firmly upheld human rights and freedoms" and criticized an online group, Stand with Hong Kong, for its remarks that Hong Kongers have been suppressed in their fight for democracy and subjected to police brutality and repression.
"This is a patently groundless, insulting and malicious accusation which must be rejected outright," said the statement. The group has invited British religious leaders to urge their government to ensure that Hong Kong citizen rights were safeguarded.
The Hong Kong government instead blamed protesters for resorting to violence in recent months. "Contrary to their claims to be campaigning for freedom, the radicals and violent protesters have openly joined hands to undermine the rights and freedoms of those who do not agree with them and attack the rule of law in an organized fashion," it said.