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Rioters set fires in Mong Kok district of Hong Kong on Feb. 9, 2016  Lam Yik Fei—Getty Images

Hong Kong Sees Violent Start to Chinese New Year as Protesters Clash With Police

Updated: Feb 09, 2016 7:38 AM UTC

Violence erupted in Hong Kong on Monday night after a municipal crackdown on outdoor food vendors rapidly escalated, with enraged protesters clashing with police overnight.

At least 300 people gathered in the streets, becoming increasingly violent as the night went on. Demonstrators hurled bottles and garbage cans at police officers and tore bricks from the pavement to be used as weapons. Police responded with pepper spray, and also reportedly fired warning shots into the air — an unprecedented gesture in Hong Kong, where political unrest typically veers toward the civil.

It was the most violent protest in the city since the pro-democracy demonstrations that floored Hong Kong during the fall of 2014. The South China Morning Post reported that 48 police officers and at least four journalists were injured as the conflict escalated into the early morning.

The protests erupted Monday evening in Mong Kok, a vibrant commercial neighborhood that was a crucible of unrest during the demonstrations that ended 15 months ago. The district is a popular venue for food hawkers, especially in early February, when locals and mainland Chinese tourists flock to the streets to celebrate the Lunar New Year.

Outdoor food vendors are a cultural staple in the city, but Hong Kong's government has long been concerned with their potential threats to health and hygiene. On Monday — the first day of the Chinese New Year — hygiene officials planned a crackdown on food stalls in Mong Kok, prompting the fury of both the vendors and political activists who joined them in solidarity.

According to multiple reports, several of the protesters appeared to belong to groups representing Hong Kong’s so-called localism movement, an isolationist campaign that calls for complete independence for the territory from mainland China.

Photos circulating on social media showed one protester, a young woman, bloodied and on the ground, being held down by a police officer. 54 people were arrested, ranging in age from 17 to 70, Stephen Lo, Hong Kong's police commissioner, told reporters on Tuesday afternoon.

“I was upstairs in my hotel room at around 2 a.m. when I heard bangs from the street — at first I thought it was fireworks, until I looked out the window,” one tourist, who requested anonymity, told TIME on Tuesday morning. “I'm jetlagged, so I wanted to go downstairs and grab some noodles, but I figured ‘no way.’”

Protesters insisted that the outrage over the crackdown on food vendors was warranted, and that the violence that ensued was precipitated by unjust police hostility. The relationship between the police and the public has gradually deteriorated since the beginning of the city's pro-democracy movement dubbed the Umbrella Revolution, when police deployed tear gas to disperse protesters that had blocked several major thoroughfares. Since that movement — which lasted nearly three months – ended in December 2014, protests against everything from mainland Chinese shoppers to street musicians singing in Mandarin have taken place.

Pro-democracy demonstrators are sprayed with pepper spray during clashes with police officers during a rally near the Hong Kong government headquarters on Sept. 28, 2014.
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Pro-democracy demonstrators are sprayed with pepper spray during clashes with police officers during a rally near the Hong Kong government headquarters on Sept. 28, 2014.Xaume Olleros—AFP/Getty Images
Pro-democracy demonstrators are sprayed with pepper spray during clashes with police officers during a rally near the Hong Kong government headquarters on Sept. 28, 2014.
A pro-democracy demonstrator gestures after police fired tear gas towards protesters near the Hong Kong government headquarters on Sept. 28, 2014.
Riot police use tear gas against protesters after thousands of people blocked a main road at the financial central district in Hong Kong, Sept. 28, 2014.
Policemen rest following pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong on Sept. 29, 2014.
A protester raises his arms as police officers try to disperse the crowd near the government headquarters in Hong Kong, Sept. 29, 2014.
Protesters gather in the streets outside the Hong Kong Government Complex on Sept. 29, 2014 in Hong Kong.
Pro-democracy demonstrators hold up their mobile phones during a protest near the Hong Kong government headquarters on Sept. 29, 2014.
A protester sleeps on the streets outside the Hong Kong Government Complex at sunrise on Sept. 30, 2014 in Hong Kong.
Protesters take part in a rally on a street outside of Hong Kong Government Complex on Sept. 30, 2014 in Hong Kong.
Joshua Wong, leader of the student movement, delivers a speech as protesters block the main street to the financial Central district, outside the government headquarters building in Hong Kong Oct.1, 2014.
Protesters react as Joshua Wong (not pictured), leader of the student movement, speaks to the crowd outside the government headquarters building in Hong Kong, Oct.1, 2014.
A protester holding an umbrella stands on the street close to the Hong Kong Government Complex on Oct.1, 2014 in Hong Kong.
A local resident breaks through police lines and attempts to reach the pro-democracy tent on Oct. 3, 2014 in Mong Kok, Hong Kong.
Policemen try to get a man to let go of a fence guarded by pro-democracy demonstrators in an occupied area of Hong Kong on Oct. 3, 2014.
A pro-democracy protester sleeps on a concrete road divider on a street outside the Hong Kong Government Complex on Oct. 5, 2014 in Hong Kong.
The statue "Umbrella Man" by the Hong Kong artist known as Milk, is set up at a pro-democracy protest site next to the central government offices in Hong Kong on Oct. 5, 2014.
A pro-democracy protester uses bamboo to strengthen a barricade blocking a major road in Hong Kong on Oct. 13, 2014.
Demonstrators walk past notes hanging on a wall outside the Central Government Offices in the Admiralty business district in Hong Kong on Oct. 17, 2014.
Tents set up by pro-democracy protesters are seen in an occupied area outside the government headquarters in Hong Kong's Admiralty district, Nov. 12, 2014.
A young Hong Kong couple who did not give their names wear gas masks as they pose for a wedding photographer prior to their marriage next to the tents used by pro-deocracy demonstrators at the Admiralty protest site on Nov. 14, 2014 in Hong Kong.
Police face pro-democracy protesters on Nov. 19, 2014 outside the central government offices in the Admiralty district of Hong Kong.
Pro-democracy activists join arms as they face off with police outside the Legislative Council building on Nov. 19, 2014 in Hong Kong.
Police officers disperse pro-democracy protesters outside the Legislative Council building after clashes with pro-democracy activists on Nov. 19, 2014 in Hong Kong.
Pro-democracy protesters climb up a wall as police officers disperse them outside the Legislative Council building after clashes with pro-democracy activists on Nov. 19, 2014 in Hong Kong.
Pro-democracy activists sleep outside the Legislative Council building after protesters clashed with police on Nov. 19, 2014 in Hong Kong.
Police arrest a pro-democracy protester on Lung Wo Road outside Hong Kong's Government complex on Nov. 30, 2014 in Hong Kong.
A young student studies in a makeshift classroom set up on a main road at a major pro-democracy protest site in the Admiralty district of Hong Kong on Dec. 1, 2014.
A demonstrator is taken away by policemen, at an area previously blocked by pro-democracy supporters, outside the government headquarters in Hong Kong, Dec. 11, 2014.
Pro-democracy protesters remove signs placed up during the past two months of protests from the area around the protest camp but leave intact the notice "We are dreamers" in the Admiralty in Hong Kong on Dec. 11, 2014.
Hong Kong police dismantle the remains of the pro-democracy protest camp in the Admiralty district of Hong Kong on Dec. 11, 2014.
Pro-democracy demonstrators are sprayed with pepper spray during clashes with police officers during a rally near the Hong Kong government headquarters on Sept. 28, 2014.
Xaume Olleros—AFP/Getty Images
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"During the Chinese New Year, the night markets in Hong Kong provide the public with cooked food and a place to spend the festive season, but since the current government took power, it has demanded ruthless cooperation from the food vendors," Joshua Wong, the student activist who stood at the center of the 2014 demonstrations, tells TIME. "[Monday night's protests] were caused by the inappropriate use of police force, which deliberately provoked public anger. It is shocking."

Authorities see the situation differently, blaming the unrest on the anger of the mob.

"Radical elements have come with self-made weapons and shields and clashed with police," Crusade Yau, a deputy district police commander in Mong Kok, told the South China Morning Post. "The situation ran out of control and became a riot."

Yau confirmed to the Post that a member of the police force had fired two warning shots at the crowd around 2 a.m. local time.

By 8 a.m. Tuesday, the demonstrators had dispersed, though police in green fatigues and riot gear stood steadfast along the blockades on Nathan Road, a major thoroughfare on the Kowloon peninsula. The Mong Kok station of the MTR, Hong Kong's metro system, was shuttered (to the anger of one expatriate, who screamed at a solemn police officer that it was "outrageous"). Street cleaners in yellow vests swept the garbage and smoldering ashes of the night before into piles on the sidewalk.

In a statement on their website, the Hong Kong Police Force urged the public to "exercise restraint" and "leave the scene as soon as possible," as local media reported fires continuing to rage in the normally bustling neighborhood.

"Any acts endangering public order and public safety will not be tolerated," the statement continued. "The public should express their views in a rational and peaceful manner."

Willy Lam, a professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong's Centre for China Studies, describes the Monday and Tuesday events as emblematic of a larger, steadily expanding rift between the city's government and the people it governs.

"It's a continuation of the sentiments which had its first outbursts in the Umbrella Movement of late 2014," Lam told TIME Tuesday. "There is massive dissatisfaction both economically and politically ... they [Hong Kong citizens] are just unhappy with authority, the police, of course, being symbols of that authority," he added.

Lam expressed concern that this week's violence will only exacerbate the Chinese government's increasing proclivity to stifle dissent in its freest territory.

China controls Hong Kong based on the "one country, two systems" principle, which promises the latter a high degree of autonomy and democratic rights not conferred on citizens of the communist-governed mainland. But recent events — such as the detention by Chinese authorities of five Hong Kong publishers — have lead to widespread fears that that autonomy is rapidly eroding.

"The importance or appeal of these nativist groups has been exaggerated by people, including Beijing, because this is a good excuse for them to crack down on genuine democratic expression in Hong Kong," Lam said.

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