Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets of Hong Kong to celebrate the Chinese New Year with a dazzling fireworks display, undeterred by the biggest outbreak of violence in the city since the 2014 pro-democracy uprising.
Police were out in force as an estimated 290,000 revelers lined both sides of Victoria Harbour to usher in the year of the monkey Tuesday night. One of the main viewing points, Tsim Sha Tsui, is only 1.5 miles from Mong Kok, the gritty commercial district where the violence erupted in the early hours of the morning.
Police Commissioner Stephen Lo Wai-chung said before the fireworks that he didn’t expect a repeat of the violence but said more police would be stationed in the area and take “resolute enforcement action” if needed.
Police fired warning shots in Kowloon’s Mong Kok district early Tuesday after an effort by food and hygiene officials to clear illegal food stalls morphed into a riot. Protesters wielded self-made weapons, set fires and hurled bricks and bottles, acting district commander Yau Siu-kei told reporters in an earlier briefing. Lo said almost 90 officers were injured, some with cuts and head wounds. More than 60 people have been arrested.
Tuesday’s clashes were the most violent since the “Umbrella Movement” of 2014, where protesters paralyzed downtown Hong Kong for more than two months to demand the right to pick the city’s leader.
Lo repeatedly blamed “violent radicals” for inciting Tuesday’s violence. “Police strongly condemn the unlawful behavior of these protesters,” he said. “In this incident, it was discovered that some people transported supplies by vehicles for use by violent radicals at the scene.”
Mong Kok is a densely-populated lower-income area covering less than a square mile on the north side of Victoria Harbour, often packed with tourists. Batons and pepper spray initially failed to stop protesters from blocking part of Nathan Road, a main shopping thoroughfare, though roads later reopened.
Hong Kong’s police force has drawn criticism for a heavy-handed response to previous street protests. On Tuesday, they defended their actions as necessary to maintaining order and defending their own.
“The situation ran out of control and became a riot,” Yau said. “As police officers saw their lives under serious threat, without any other alternatives, two gunshots were fired as a warning.”
Eric Wong, 27, who has sold cotton candy for four years and was on the streets Monday night, said the events of the past evening were “intolerable.”
“I lost one third of my business because of that,” he said. “I would have had three more hours to sell my candy if the riots didn’t happen.” He said police patrols had stepped up Tuesday evening with officers coming past every 90 minutes.
Food and hygiene officers had not previously sought to close down Chinese New Year hawkers, Wong said. “You push your cart away, let them clear the street,” he said. “That’s been the way for the past few years and we’ve been having cordial relations with these officers.”
Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying condemned the actions of what he called “mobs.”
“The people can see for themselves the seriousness of the situation,” Leung said in a televised news conference, referring to video footage of the events. “This is clearly a riot, and the police haven’t ruled out this was premeditated,” he said. “The police have strict guidance to follow when using weapons.”
While no group claimed responsibility for the riot, Secretary of Security Lai Tung-kwok said at the same briefing “there are indications that there were organized activities.”
Members of the Hong Kong Indigenous group, which was reported by some local media to have been the main agitators, went to the aid of the food-stall vendors but weren’t involved in the subsequent riot, Wong Toi-yeung, a convener for the organization, told local broadcaster RTHK.
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The group, an organization advocating greater autonomy for Hong Kong, posted a notice on Facebook shortly after midnight Tuesday calling for a march in Mong Kok in support of Edward Leung Tin-kei, a legislative council candidate it put up for election. In the post, the group called on supporters to come equipped with face-masks, water and protective gear. Leung was arrested, it said later in a separate post.
The 2014 protests were kick-started when student leaders stormed the premises of the government headquarters and drew as many as 100,000 people after police used tear gas. It became the biggest challenge to China’s rule over Hong Kong since it resumed sovereignty over the former British colony in 1997.
Mong Kok saw some of the most violent clashes of the 2014 protests.
Given the events of 2014 and the government’s refusal to engage in dialogue with the opposition it is not surprising to see a gradual tendency toward more dramatic tactics by protesters, said James Rice, an assistant professor of philosophy and law at Hong Kong’s Lingnan University.
“Moving from peaceful protests to any of violence is regrettable but given the government’s total inflexibility on democratic reforms, and given their constant refusal to even engage in any dialogue with an entire generation of young idealistic people, it was inevitable to see a gradual tendency toward ever more militant attitudes and tactics,” he said.