HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hong Kong protesters made long human chains and marched through shopping malls on New Year’s Eve, urging people not to give up the fight for democracy in 2020, while police were out in force across the city to quell any unrest.
Authorities have canceled the popular midnight fireworks for the first time in a decade, citing security concerns. A “Symphony of Lights” is planned instead, involving projections on the city’s tallest skyscrapers after a countdown to midnight.
“This year there are no fireworks, but there will probably be tear gas somewhere,” said 25-year-old IT worker Sam. “For us it’s not really New Year’s Eve. We have to resist every day.”
As evening fell, hundreds of masked protesters, many dressed in black and waving flags with pro-democracy slogans, stood together forming long chains along sidewalks in several neighborhoods in the Chinese-ruled city.
Dozens of protesters laid flowers near the Prince Edward metro station, which was the scene of some of the most violent clashes with the police this summer. Demonstrations dubbed “Suck the Eve” in the downtown bar and entertainment district of Lan Kwai Fong and the picturesque Victoria Harbour were planned for later in the night.
Wong, a 22-year-old freelance photographer who gave only his last name, said he did not feel like celebrating New Year.
“I can’t even celebrate my birthday. I choose to stand here because at least we can chant a little and it feels like I’m with family,” he said.
The protests began in June in response to a now-withdrawn bill that would have allowed extraditions to mainland China, where courts are controlled by the Communist Party, and have evolved into a broader pro-democracy movement.
Many streets were decorated with Christmas lights and other seasonal paraphernalia, but the mood on Tuesday was less than festive as officers in riot gear patrolled the busiest areas.
In a prime shopping mall in the Tsim Sha Tsui area popular with tourists, riot police stopped people to search their backpacks as dozens of protesters chanted “Liberate Hong Kong, Revolution of our times”.
In another mall downtown, some shops closed early.
In a New Year’s Eve video message, Chief Executive Carrie Lam said more than six months of unrest in the Asian financial hub had caused sadness, anxiety, disappointment and rage.
“Let’s start 2020 with a new resolution, to restore order and harmony in society. So we can begin again, together,” said Lam in the 3-minute address.
Chinese President Xi Jinping extended his best wishes to Hong Kongers in a speech carried by state television.
“The situation in Hong Kong has been everybody’s concern over the past few months,” Xi said.
“Without a harmonious and stable environment, how can there be a home where people can live and work happily?” he said. “We sincerely hope for the best for Hong Kong and Hong Kong compatriots.”
Police say they have arrested nearly 6,500 people since the protests began escalating in what is the worst political crisis faced by the city in decades.
On Jan. 1, tens of thousands of people are expected to join a major pro-democracy march, after it received police approval to proceed.
The previous such march by organizers, the Civil Human Rights Front (CHRF), in early December, drew an estimated 800,000 people.
The New Year demonstrations follow a pick-up in clashes since Christmas Eve, when riot police fired tear gas at thousands of protesters following scuffles in shopping malls and in a prime tourist district.
“On New Year’s Day, we need to show our solidarity … to resist the government. We hope Hong Kong people will come onto the streets for Hong Kong’s future,” said CHRF leader Jimmy Sham.
Reporting by Jessie Pang, Mari Saito, Twinnie Siu, Sarah Wu, Tyrone Siu; writing by Marius Zaharia; editing by Mike Collett-White and Philippa Fletcher
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