Riot police in Hong Kong fired tear gas at protesters, many wearing masks and reindeer horns, amid scuffles in shopping malls and in a prime tourist district on Tuesday as anti-government rallies escalated on Christmas Eve.
Protesters in the malls threw umbrellas and other objects at police who responded by beating some demonstrators with batons, with one police officer pointing his gun at the crowd but not firing.
Police shot tear gas to disperse protesters who had occupied the main roads outside the malls and nearby luxury hotels.
Plain-clothes police officers also reportedly made arrests inside the Harbour City luxury mall.
Many families with children had congregated in the same area to view the Christmas lights along the promenade in the Tsim Sha Tsui tourist district of Kowloon, the spectacular backdrop of Hong Kong island on the opposite side of the harbour.
Hong Kong has a sizeable Christian population, but the months-long, pro-democracy protests have tempered celebrations this year, with police saying they would not close roads to traffic as normal during the festive period for fear protesters would use the opportunity to gather.
The protests, now in their seventh month, have lost some of the scale and intensity of earlier violent confrontations. However, a peaceful rally earlier this month drew 800,000 people, according to organisers, showing strong support for the movement.
The protests were initially sparked by a now-abandoned attempt to allow extraditions to mainland China, but have since morphed into a popular revolt against Beijing’s rule, with spiralling fears that the city is losing some of its unique liberties.
Black-clad, mask-wearing protesters chanted slogans including “Revive Hong Kong, revolution of our time” and “Hong Kong independence” as they roamed the malls.
“Lots of people are shopping so it’s a good opportunity to spread the message and tell the people what we are fighting for,” said Ken, an 18-year-old student.
“We fight for freedom, we fight for our future.”
More marches planned
At one mall in the teeming Mong Kok district, also on the Kowloon peninsula, police used pepper spray to disperse some protesters, according to cable television.
Some protesters were planning to march in Tsim Sha Tsui and count down to Christmas, according to notices on social media.
The Civil Human Rights Front, which has organised some of the biggest marches involving more than a million people, has applied to stage another march on New Year’s Day.
Police have arrested more than 6,000 people since the protests escalated in June, including a large number during a protracted, violent siege at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University in mid-November.
Many Hong Kong residents are angry at what they see as Beijing’s meddling 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.