By Donny Kwok
HONG KONG, December 16, 2019 (Reuters) – Hong Kong police fired tear gas in late night street clashes with anti-government protesters, ahead of a potentially pivotal meeting between Hong Kong’s leader and China’s president in Beijing on Monday.
Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam, in the Chinese capital for a regular duty visit, is set to meet Xi Jinping amid speculation the visit could yield fresh directives on the city’s political crisis, including a possible cabinet reshuffle.
The two had previously met in Shanghai in early November when Xi expressed “high trust” in Lam despite the turmoil.
Lam, however, appeared to play down the prospects of a cabinet reshuffle before she left, saying the first task was to curb violence and restore order, while seeking to engage in more dialogue with the public.
Hong Kong has been embroiled in its worst political crisis in decades since June with anti-government protests posing a populist challenge to China’s Xi. The unrest has also complicated ties between China and the United States at a time of heightened tensions, including over trade.
Late on Sunday, groups of masked youths – angered by what they see as Chinese meddling in freedoms promised to Hong Kong when the former British colony returned to Chinese rule in 1997 – blocked roads around Mong Kok district, prompting police to fire multiple rounds of tear gas and baton charge crowds.
It was the first time in nearly two weeks that tear gas had been deployed by police.
Fires were lit and traffic lights smashed, while one student reporter for Baptist University was hit in the face by a police projectile and had to be hospitalised, local television footage showed.
Small bands of protesters marched through several malls, blocking entrances, smashing glass, and chanting slogans including “fight for freedom”. Many shops in affected malls closed early after battalions of riot police stormed in, pepper spraying crowds and making multiple arrests.
In the evening, several hundred protesters held a vigil for a protester who fell to his death outside a luxury mall six months ago. They laid white flowers and sang songs to commemorate Leung Ling-kit, known as “raincoat man” for what he wore at the time.
Despite the protesters’ demands and anti-China rhetoric, China maintains it is committed to the “one country, two systems” formula granting Hong Kong a large degree of autonomy and freedoms denied other cities in the mainland. (Writing by James Pomfret; Editing by Lincoln Feast.)