Police have fired pepper spray at a group of protesters as they attempted to detain a group member in one of more than 10 demonstrations in shopping centres across Hong Kong to mark the birthday of unpopular Chief Executive Carrie Lam.
A heated exchange between a man armed with an umbrella and a police officer resulted in the crowd and some journalists being sprayed at New Town Plaza in Shatin. The protests that took place on Wednesday evening flouted coronavirus-related bans on public gatherings of more than eight people to mock Ms Lam on her 63rd birthday.
It was the latest sign social unrest was resurfacing in Hong Kong. The former British colony, now under China rule, has recorded 1,051 COVID-19 cases and only four deaths after strict lockdown measures were enforced in January.
“Such behaviour not only makes our anti-pandemic efforts futile,” Hong Kong Police wrote on its Facebook page. “It may also constitute the offences of ‘participating in an unauthorised assembly’ under the Public Order Ordinance and ‘participating in a prohibited group gathering’ under the Prevention and Control of Disease.”
The protests began at 7:30pm local time, with crowds chanting and waving banners that read “Liberate Hong Kong; revolution of our times” and “Five demands, not one less”. Some carried Hong Kong independence flags and shouted abuse attacking the policies of Ms Lam.
Police were also verbally targeted after public scandals led to the arrest of 18 officers for different offences over the past month. In addition to New Town Plaza in New Territories, protests were staged at popular shopping centres on the densely populated Hong Kong island, including Times Square at Causeway Bay and IFC Mall at Central, as well as in Kowloon.
Messages in Cantonese were broadcast in the malls to warn protesters they would be violating the law if they continued to gather, as riot squad officers stood outside. Hong Kong Police later said on its Facebook page “rioters” had raided a shop and broke monitors, electronic devices and other facilities.
But they were more peaceful protests than the Mother’s Day clashes last Sunday when more than 230 people were arrested at Mong Kok in Kowloon. The South China Morning Post reported that journalists were again targeted by police on Wednesday night, with two online media workers hit with pepper spray and given no warnings from police beforehand.
Tang Ping-keung, Hong Kong Commissioner of Police, has said he will meet with media representatives next week after describing his officers’ treatment of journalists covering protests on Mother’s Day as “unsatisfactory”. Widespread protests in Hong Kong began in June 2019, sparked by a China extradition bill that has since been withdrawn.
Advocates have said they are concerned coronavirus restrictions have given Beijing a free rein to quash Hong Kong’s pro-democracy efforts.