Hong Kong police fire tear gas to disperse Mong Kok protesters

Shoppers wearing surgical masks are directed by a police officer at a flower market in the Mong Kok district of Hong Kong, on Jan 24, 2020. PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

HONG KONG (BLOOMBERG) - Hong Kong police fired tear gas to disperse a crowd of protesters who gathered in the crowded shopping hub of Mong Kok on Saturday night (Jan 25) at the site of a 2016 protest that marked a violent turn by the city's pro-democracy movement.

Police said in a statement a large crowd had formed and "some rioters blocked roads with miscellaneous objects and trash," and hurled "hard objects" at a police vehicle. Officers used tear gas to disperse the crowd, according to the statement.

The clashes follow the cancellation of a rally planned on Sunday to mark the fourth anniversary of the so-called Fishball Revolution, a protest against a crackdown on unlicensed street vendors that left dozens of police officers injured. The demonstration was surprisingly violent by the standards of the time and prompted a government campaign to clamp down on the pro-independence group involved with it.

The incident also helped little-known activist Edward Leung, who played a leading role in the protest, become one of the city's most prominent independence advocates. Leung's campaign slogan - "Reclaim Hong Kong, Revolution of Our Time!" - was widely adopted by participants in protests that gripped the Asian financial hub for much of last year.

More than seven months of pro-democracy protests have battered the former British colony's economy, undermined its reputation for political stability and increased geopolitical tensions between the US and China.

Beijing has governed Hong Kong since 1997 under a "one country, two systems" framework that preserves its freedom of expression, independent courts and capitalist financial system.

The Fishball demonstration in 2016, which saw demonstrators throw bricks at police officers and start fires, was among the most violent that the city had seen in decades, introducing tactics that have been mimicked by activists during the recent months of anti-government protests.

The incident draws its name from a popular street food that's sold everywhere from hawkers to restaurants. The dish is commonly seen at street vendors during Lunar New Year celebrations. Although such stalls are unauthorised, they had been long tolerated by authorities during the festive season.

At the time, activists argued that their protest was aimed at defending a traditional practice. But the Chinese government later denounced Leung's group as a "radical separatist organisation" and city officials began to ban those expressing similar views from seeking elected office.

Leung was sentenced in 2018 to six years in prison for his role in the incident. In October, hundreds of protesters turned out to support Leung at an appeal hearing held at Hong Kong's High Court.

The current protests were ignited by a proposed law to allow extraditions to jurisdictions including mainland China. After a couple of months of demonstrations, the government withdrew the Bill but the protesters' demands had broadened to include greater democracy and an independent inquiry into police conduct during the unrest.

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