HONG KONG — Hong Kong riot police fired tear gas at thousands of protesters, many wearing masks and reindeer horns, after scuffles in shopping malls and in a prime tourist district as anti-government rallies escalated into chaos on Christmas Eve.
Police said one man was taken to a hospital after pushing a police officer and jumping a glass barrier and falling one floor inside a shopping mall in his attempt to escape. The man has been arrested for assaulting a police officer, the police added.
Protesters inside the building had thrown umbrellas and other objects at police who responded by beating some demonstrators with batons, with one pointing his gun at the crowd, but not firing.
Police fired tear gas to disperse protesters who had occupied the main roads outside the malls and nearby luxury hotels, including the Peninsula.
Clashes first broke out in an high-end shopping mall in Tsim Sha Tsui, the city’s popular tourist district, as plainclothes officers made several arrests. Many families with children had congregated in the same area to view the Christmas lights along the promenade with a well-known backdrop of Hong Kong island on the opposite side of the harbor.
Others had gathered in Harbour City shopping mall and were chanting "murders!", "rapists" and "monsters" towards riot police officers.
Tensions also escalated in other parts of the city, including the residential district of Yuen Long.
“Christmas Eve is supposed to be a day to celebrate the festival, but because the Hong Kong government hasn’t responded to our demands and as well the increasing police brutality, we have to come out and express our discontentment,” said Raymond Lee, 19, a student who was wearing a mask and a Christmas hat.
The protests, now in their seventh month, have lost some of the scale and intensity of earlier violent confrontations. A peaceful rally earlier this month still drew 800,000 people, according to organizers, showing strong support for the movement.
Scores of black-clad, mask-wearing protesters chanted slogans including "Revive Hong Kong, revolution of our time," and "Hong Kong independence" as they roamed the malls.
"Lots of people are shopping, so it's a good opportunity to spread the message and tell people what we are fighting for," Ken, an 18-year-old student, said. "We fight for freedom, we fight for our future."
Shopping malls have recently become the latest way for Hong Kong protesters to continue their anti-government movement.
At one mall in the teeming Mong Kok district, also on the Kowloon peninsula, police used pepper spray to disperse some protesters, according to cable television.
Some protesters were planning to march in Tsim Sha Tsui and count down to Christmas, according to notices on social media.
The Civil Human Rights Front, which has organized some of the biggest marches involving more than a million people, has applied to stage another march on New Year's Day.
Police have arrested more than 6,000 people since the protests escalated in June, including a large number during a protracted, violent siege at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University in mid-November.
Many Hong Kong residents are angry at what they see as Beijing's meddling in the freedoms promised to the former British colony when it returned to Chinese rule in 1997.
China denies interfering and says it is committed to the "one country, two systems" formula put in place at that time and has blamed foreign forces for fomenting unrest.