By Donny Kwok and Mari Saito
HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hong Kong anti-government protesters marched through Christmas-decorated shopping centers on Wednesday, chanting pro-democracy slogans and forcing one mall to close early, 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.
Despite the embarrassing results, Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing leaders have made no new concessions.
“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 center 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 several neighborhoods 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 expletives at the unpopular officers, who have been accused of using excessive force, police briefly fired tear gas in Mong Kok, a popular protest area.
Police describe their reaction to the unrest as 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.
Baton-wielding police fired tear gas on Tuesday at thousands of protesters who barricaded roads and trashed a Starbucks cafe and an HSBC branch.
The city’s leader Carrie Lam said in a Facebook post on Wednesday that many Hong Kongers 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.”
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.
HSBC has become embroiled in a controversy involving a recent police crackdown on a fund-raising platform supporting protesters. HSBC denied any connection between the crackdown and its closure of an account linked to the group, but remains the target of protester rage.
Starbucks has been targeted after the daughter of the founder of Maxim’s Caterers, which owns the local franchise, publicly condemned the protesters.
DINNER WITH STRANGERS
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, saying it is committed to the “one country, two systems” formula put in place at that time and blaming foreign forces for fomenting unrest.
While protesters have repeatedly vandalized businesses they believed to have ties with pro-Beijing figures, they deliberately supported those which have offered them shelter from tear gas or free water during hot summer marches.
One eatery in the Tsim Sha Tsui tourist area organized a Christmas dinner for protesters, with hundreds queuing outside for a free plate of noodles or fried chicken.
“It’s my first time going to a buffet with strangers, but we share the same goals … so it feels like a meaningful way to spend Christmas,” said private tutor Kenny, 46, who was eating outside the diner.
(Additional reporting by Lucy Nicholson, Ronn Bautista, Felix Tam and Twinnie Siu; Writing by Marius Zaharia, Editing by Gareth Jones and Ed Osmond)