Police use tear gas, pepper spray as Hong Kong Christmas protests turn ugly

Alvin Lum

Defiant anti-government protesters took to the streets of Hong Kong and gathered in shopping centres again on Christmas Day, confronting police who used tear gas and pepper spray, after a previous night of mob violence and vandalism.

Riot police were out in force on Wednesday at various hot spots and pepper sprayed protesters inside Sha Tin’s New Town Plaza, outside Langham Place in Mong Kok, and at Telford Plaza in Kowloon Bay riot police chased after protesters and sprayed them at close range. Earlier around 200 protesters gathered at Telford Plaza at 8pm and sang their anthem, Glory to Hong Kong.

Officers were seen subduing protesters and taking them away at several flashpoints, including around 10 at New Town Plaza.

Riot police retreated to their vans as hundreds of protesters advanced towards them in Mong Kok’s Shanghai Street, and fired two rounds of tear gas at them at around 6.30pm without raising any warning flag.

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The city’s embattled leader, Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, expressed her frustration at the behaviour of radicals on Christmas Eve, saying many people as well as tourists coming to Hong Kong were disappointed that their festive celebrations had been ruined by “a group of reckless and selfish rioters”.

“Such illegal acts have not only dampened the festive mood but also adversely affected local businesses,” she said in a Facebook post. “The government will try its utmost to uphold law and order, and restore peace in Hong Kong.”

The government also hit back at Hong Kong Watch after the Britain-based group claimed the city had “witnessed truly outrageous police brutality on Christmas Eve”, dismissing the allegation as “fake, utterly irresponsible and grossly unfair”.

Anti-government protesters in Langham Place in Mong Kok on Wednesday. Photo: Felix Wong

“Only minimum force was deployed in response to the blatant unlawful activities of the violent protesters on Christmas Eve,” a spokesman said in a statement.

“These violent activities included arson, recklessly vandalising shops and the Mong Kok branch of HSBC, blockading roads, destroying 21 sets of traffic lights in the Mong Kok area, brutally assaulting innocent members of the public, attacking police officers by petrol bombs and charging police cordon lines and unlawful assembly.”

After a chaotic Christmas Eve scores returned to the shopping malls late on Wednesday afternoon to continue their protests.

“Disband police now”, “five demands, not one less”, and “Hong Kong independence” were the slogans of the day.

Inside Langham Place, a Maxim’s restaurant and a Starbucks cafe, which have been regularly targeted by radicals as mainland Chinese-linked businesses, were closed for the day, but most other shops were open.

The mall authorities asked shoppers to vacate the premises when about 50 protesters stormed the food court on the fourth floor.

Many panic-stricken shoppers left the mall, but some were undeterred.

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A teacher in his mid 20s, who only gave his surname as Lam, said he would continue shopping.

“I’m not scared. I support the protesters,” Lam said, adding that he had taken part occasionally in past demonstrations.

Sie Florrie, a 14-year-old student, said she did not have any plans to join protests on Wednesday, but changed her mind when she heard slogans being chanted in the mall.

“I’m one of them. When I see them, I feel like I should join them,” she said. “We need to keep fighting till we reach our purpose.”

Riot police stand guard in Mong Kok. Photo: Felix Wong

The protesters earlier launched online calls for lunchtime marches on Christmas Day and Boxing Day in six districts – Wan Chai, Causeway Bay, Tsim Sha Tsui, Mong Kok, Sha Tin, and Central – to press their demands, which include launching an independent investigation into police conduct and starting a political reform process for universal suffrage.

At Harbour City mall in Tsim Sha Tsui, business was normal with festive revellers thronging the place for shopping. But security was stepped up with a dozen of riot police patrolling around Canton Road.

On Canton Road, Swiss tourist Marina Steinberg, on a three-day tour of Hong Kong before going to Thailand, said the unrest did not affect her much.

“I am just caught in the middle of the protests after leaving from restaurants and going back to hotel,” the banker said.

But she said she felt uneasy walking through Canton Road amid heavy police presence. “The huge police presence is worrying,” she said.

She said she chose to come despite the unrest as she had planned the trip a year ago.

“Hong Kong is still a vibrant city, and I still have a good impression of the place and its culture and heritage, which I find missing in Singapore,” she said.

Hong Kong marks Christmas Eve with return to tear gas and protest chaos

Protesters at New Town Plaza chanted slogans and cheered when shops closed.

They entered a restaurant they regarded as pro-police at 6.35pm, touching the computer system as to print out long sheets of “waiting vouchers”, sitting down and yelling to diners “Don’t eat here. It is a blue restaurant”.

Twenty riot police then rushed into the mall and used pepper spray, hitting officers including Chief Superintendent Rupert Dover, as well as protesters, before 10 people were taken away with their hands tied.

The shopping centre, which normally closes at 10pm, announced it was closing three hours early.

The night of Christmas Eve turned violent in Tsim Sha Tsui, where thousands of protesters gathered at Harbour City, and on Salisbury Road and Nathan Road to clash with riot police.

Police had to use crowd control methods – such as water cannon, pepper spray, sponge grenades, and tear gas – to disperse the protesters from the area.

Black-clad protesters also showed up at Times Square in Causeway Bay and chanted slogans. Photo: May Tse

In Mong Kok, branches of HSBC and its Hang Seng banks were trashed as radicals “took revenge” on the banking group for their alleged role in police crackdown on a protest fundraiser.

Hospital Authority said at least 25 people were hospitalised with protest-related injuries between Tuesday and Wednesday morning.

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However, the Lan Kwai Fong entertainment district in Central, Lee Tung Street in Wan Chai, and the busy shopping district of Kowloon in Mong Kok, remained largely peaceful till late afternoon on Wednesday.

At Times Square in Causeway Bay, a middle-aged shopper, surnamed Cheung, said she was disappointed to see a scheduled Pokemon event cancelled amid the protests.

“I came to take a photo with my beloved Pikachu, but was very disappointed to know it had been cancelled,” she said. “The protesters have every right to express their views, but that should not come at the cost of affecting others’ lives, especially during festive seasons.”

A shopper from the mainland at the mall said the protests did not affect her shopping but heaped scorn on the protesters. “It is a pity that they are brainwashed. Don’t they have better things to do?” she said.

The civil unrest in Hong Kong, which started over opposition to the now-withdrawn extradition bill in June, has entered its seventh month.

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