Christmas in Hong Kong was “ruined” by renewed unrest, according to the city’s embattled chief executive, as pro-democracy activists staged demonstrations and police carried out mass arrests across the city’s main shopping districts.
After several weeks of relative calm, the territory was again rocked by violent clashes between an increasingly aggressive police force and a smaller but radicalising protest movement that spread through shopping malls and crowded streets on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.
Human rights groups accused the Hong Kong police of a disproportionate response as they carried out random searches of shoppers in busy malls, fired numerous rounds of tear gas and rubber bullets and detained scores of people in indiscriminate mass arrests.
Benedict Rogers, human rights activist and chairman of UK-based non-governmental organisation Hong Kong Watch, said there had been “outrageous” police brutality on Christmas Eve after tear gas was deployed to disperse crowds outside the iconic Peninsula Hotel, where rooms cost as much as HK$21,080 (US$2,706) a night.
The accusation was rejected by the Hong Kong government, which said there had been arson and police had been attacked with petrol bombs.
Carrie Lam, the city’s Beijing-appointed leader, accused the protesters of “dampening” the festive mood. “Many members of the public and tourists coming to Hong Kong were naturally disappointed that their Christmas Eve celebrations have been ruined by a group of reckless and selfish rioters,” she said in a statement.
The demonstrations began eight months ago in opposition to a proposal to send alleged criminals to mainland China to face trial in Communist Party-controlled courts. But they have evolved into a broader demand for democracy and now represent the biggest open rebellion on Chinese soil in three decades.
The Christmas protests suggest the unrest will probably continue into 2020.
The organiser of the marches which brought millions onto the city streets, the Civil Human Rights Front, has applied for approval for a protest on New Year’s Day and demonstrators are discussing plans for New Year’s Eve.
Targets of the protest movement are also broadening. On Christmas Eve, demonstrators vandalised and set fire to a branch of HSBC after the bank was accused of closing an account used to manage proceeds of crowdfunding to assist protesters.
This was the first time the UK-headquartered bank was targeted directly by the protests. In recent months demonstrators have often attacked state-owned Chinese banks and businesses perceived to be sympathetic to Beijing and the Hong Kong government.
Insiders say the protest movement could threaten about a quarter of HSBC’s local revenues.