HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hundreds of protesters marched through Hong Kong shopping malls on Thursday, disrupting business in the Asian financial hub for a third day over the festive period and prompting riot police to close off a mall in a tourist district.
The “shopping protests” have targeted malls across the Chinese-ruled city since Christmas Eve, turning violent at times with police firing tear gas to disperse demonstrators in areas filled with shoppers and visitors.
While the turnout on Thursday was smaller than on the previous two days, riot police stepped up patrols at shopping centers on the Kowloon peninsula and in the rural New Territories.
Dozens of police with batons and shields surrounded and sealed off the Langham Place shopping mall in Kowloon’s Tsim Sha Tsui district after black-clad, masked protesters occupied it.
“I think the purpose for us to come out is to… let people realize that so many front-line protesters sacrificed (things) for them. They should not forget and (simply) celebrate Christmas,” said Sandy, a young demonstrator who wore a black mask to hide her identity.
“…We have been fighting for almost seven months now, and the Hong Kong police have done so many bad things.”
The protests began more than six months ago in response to a now-withdrawn bill that would have allowed extraditions to mainland China, where courts are controlled by the Communist Party.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, and became more confrontational over the festive season. Earlier in December, after pro-democracy candidates overwhelmingly won district council elections, they had been largely peaceful.
Many protesters have been angered by what they see as the use of unnecessary force by the police, and demanded an independent inquiry into the force’s behavior.
Police, who say they have used only minimum force to control the protests, on Thursday detained several people at a mall in rural Tai Po, north of the city’s financial center, public broadcaster RTHK said.
Demonstrators are also angry at what they perceive as increased meddling by Beijing in 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 blames foreign forces for fomenting unrest.
Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam condemned the protesters in a Facebook post on Wednesday, saying many Hong Kongers and tourists were disappointed their Christmas Eve celebrations had been ruined, while local businesses had also been hit.
On Thursday, some restaurants and stores pulled down their shutters in the malls as protesters, some wearing balaclavas and carrying black flags, marched by.
The government on Thursday criticized “unprecedented violence” by some protesters, but said that protecting freedoms and human rights remained a top priority.
(Reporting by Joyce Zhou and Twinnie Siu; Writing by Farah Master; editing by John Stonestreet)