HONG KONG—A peaceful rally at a major suburban shopping mall turned into a battle scene Sunday, after riot police showed up and protesters built barricades and lighted fires.
The clashes, which followed street battles Saturday where protesters threw Molotov cocktails, showed the city is having trouble containing violent clashes as the highly sensitive 70th anniversary of the founding of Communist China approaches, just over a week away. Already, Hong Kong has canceled fireworks planned for the anniversary in light of the unrest.
The tensions also showed that public anger with the police continues to run high after a number of incidents this summer that many people believe involved excessive force. Two months ago, in one of those incidents, police charged protesters with batons and pepper spray inside the New Town Plaza mall in Sha Tin, the site of Sunday’s protests.
The mood at the mall in the city’s largest residential district quickly turned hostile late Sunday afternoon, as the sight of riot police entering the venue set off panic among the crowd of activists, who minutes earlier were singing songs, chanting their demands and folding paper cranes.
A group of masked, hard-core demonstrators began creating a barricade with trash cans, fencing, even sofas scrounged from around the mall, then slicked the floors with cooking oil, soap and water. The smell of spray paint—which demonstrators used to cover parts of the mall with antigovernment and anti-China slogans—permeated the air.
Later, protesters built another barricade outside the mall and set it ablaze to defend their front lines before riot police fired tear gas and began to charge, chasing protesters around the vicinity of the mall and its surrounding park and town hall. Protesters hurled trash cans and other debris at police from an elevated walkway as police crossed under. Most of the crowd dispersed before nightfall.
The scuffles on the 16th straight weekend of protests create a challenge for authorities ahead of two crucial anniversaries that are expected to draw huge crowds. This coming weekend will mark the fifth anniversary of the beginning of the pro-democracy “Umbrella Movement” protests, while Oct. 1 is the 70th anniversary of the founding of People’s Republic of China. Some of the posters put up Sunday called for the whole city on Oct. 1 to wear black, the unofficial color of the protests.
The mood on the ground is creating more tension rather than relieving it. Protesters’ use of firebombs has increased, and a police officers’ association warned that officers could respond with live ammunition. Meanwhile, the government has resisted calls for a judge-led inquiry into incidents of police handling of the protests.
Earlier this month, the city’s leader, Carrie Lam, acceded to one of the protesters’ five demands: the withdrawal of an extradition bill that would have allowed for suspects to be tried on the mainland. But protests have persisted, with demonstrators saying they would not back down until their other demands are met. They include democratic reform and amnesty for protesters. They also include the independent investigation into how police have handled the protests, something public polls have consistently shown to be a top concern. Mrs. Lam has said an existing police-commission inquiry is sufficient.
New Town Plaza was the scene of protests on July 14, which saw riot police clash with demonstrators inside the shopping mall while families and shoppers were still inside. Residents were angry at mall manager Sun Hung Kai Properties Ltd. over the fact that police had been let in at the time. The company didn’t answer phone calls outside regular business hours Sunday.
Earlier on Sunday, hundreds of residents of all ages, a number of them unmasked, gathered in the atrium of the mall. They hung banners calling for support for the protesters and pointing to China’s suppression of Tibet and Xinjiang. Anti-China stickers, posters and spray-painted slogans were visible throughout the mall. At one point, they defaced and stepped on the Chinese national flag, dragging it around the mall before some protesters threw it into a nearby river.
The hard-core protesters who typically hold the front lines put on hard hats and masks and rushed through the crowd, as news of the riot police’s arrival circulated. Shops such as Zara and cosmetics outlet Chanel Beauté that had remained open during the rally quickly closed as the scuffles began and mall management asked shoppers to calmly leave.
“Every time the police come through there is a fight,” said one 68-year-old grandmother surnamed Ko. She said she had the day off from taking care of her grandchildren, aged 4 to 16, and came because she wanted to show support for the young people in the front lines.
“The future belongs to them,” she said. “The government needs to listen to their demands.”
On Sunday, shops also closed as a group of protesters faced off with police in the Elements shopping mall across the city. On Saturday evening, hundreds gathered at a shopping center near a subway station in Yuen Long to mark the two-month anniversary of an attack by a group of white-shirted men, which left dozens of protesters and bystanders injured.
That attack helped magnify the focus of the protests from the extradition bill to the conduct of police. Many protesters believe police didn’t do enough to protect people and haven’t made finding the perpetrators of that attack a priority. Police have charged some in relation to the attacks in recent weeks.
Police officials have expressed concerns about the increasing violence from protesters and have said they are worried they may have to respond in more forceful ways. One police official said there were situations in the past when lethal force would have been justified but wasn’t used, which is evidence of officers’ restraint.
Felix Wu, a 64-year-old supermarket worker who lives in Sha Tin, came to the mall Sunday to support the protesters. He said harsh police methods had forced protesters to adopt more violent tactics and was there to help protect them by capturing the action in video on his phone.
“I don’t worry about the violence to this shopping mall,” Mr. Wu said. “I worry about the protesters. They are facing very brutal violence from the police.”
Many of the protesters said they were getting ready for the coming weekend.
“There’s no turning back now,” said Candy Siu, 22, who has been protesting since June. “These few months have shown us that the government only listens to the Chinese Communist Party, and not us. This is all we have left to make them hear our voice.”