HONG KONG — Several thousand demonstrators gathered in the streets of a Hong Kong border town on Saturday to protest against mainland Chinese traders, the latest effort by local activists to ride the momentum of recent mass protests in the city.
What began as a peaceful protest on Saturday in Sheung Shui, an area of Hong Kong close to the border with mainland China, devolved into clashes between demonstrators armed with umbrellas and police wielding batons, pepper spray and shields.
Several protesters were seen being treated for injuries at the scene.
The march in Sheung Shui was the latest in a series of demonstrations that have plunged the former British colony into its biggest political crisis since it was returned to Chinese rule in 1997. Opposition to a contentious bill that would have allowed extraditions to mainland China has drawn hundreds of thousands of protesters into the streets. Tensions peaked two weeks ago when a small group of demonstrators stormed the city’s legislative building.
This week, Carrie Lam, the city’s embattled leader, said that the controversial bill was “dead” but she has declined to formally withdraw it. Demonstrators say Mrs. Lam’s steadfast refusal to completely retract the bill in the face of widespread opposition has undermined public trust in her leadership, fueling growing calls for her resignation. In recent weeks, protesters have also broadened their demands to include a call for greater democratic reforms in the city.
The flourishing movement has given new energy to activists in border towns like Sheung Shui who have protested for years against the impact of the growing numbers of tourists and visitors from mainland China.
On Saturday, many shops in Sheung Shui were shuttered as protesters marched through the streets shouting slogans like “Reclaim Sheung Shui” and “Give us back our community!” while demanding the withdrawal of the extradition bill and Mrs. Lam’s resignation.
Many of the protesters were residents angry with the vast numbers of so-called “parallel traders” who come across the border from the mainland to buy items like baby formula and diapers for resale at a markup in China to evade import taxes. Local residents say the retail boom has pushed up commercial rents and forced businesses aimed at residents to relocate or close.
In recent weeks, some protesters have voiced concerns that the movement’s growing demands could impact their ability to channel public support and sustain momentum. But on Saturday, several residents said that the disparate demands were in fact related to a single issue.
“People say it’s a different issue, one is a local problem, the other is citywide, but the root of it is rather the same,” said Gary Law, 32, a primary-school teacher who grew up in Sheung Shui. “It’s mostly about China.”
Over the years, the community protests have at times taken on a nativist strain. Last fall, activists led protests in the quiet Hong Kong suburb of Tung Chung, which saw a large influx of mainland tourists after a sea bridge linked the city with Macau and mainland China. Activists sought to portray the tourists as “invaders” and used bullhorns to shout at visitors they accused of being “uncivilized.”
Last weekend, thousands of protesters rallied in the Hong Kong neighborhood of Tuen Mun against a group of middle-aged mainland women who they accused of causing a disturbance in the local park with loud singing and provocative dancing. As the protesters closed in, one woman from mainland China fled and took refuge in a public toilet for several hours before police came to escort her away, according to reports in the local media.
That nativist tone was evident once again at Saturday’s protest which, compared to the previous protests in the city’s main financial district, drew a smaller, mostly local crowd.
“I want to tell those people who trade parallel goods that we Hong Kong people actually do not like what they’ve been doing, and that they have invaded our daily life and affected Hong Kong,” said Cecilia Hui, 26, a resident of Sheung Shui.
Other protesters, however, sought to keep the focus on the larger movement. Many more people are expected to turn out on Sunday for a planned protest in Sha Tin in Hong Kong’s New Territories region.
“We have asked the government for a response, but every time they refuse to give a solid response,” said Karina Chan, 33. “That’s why we have kept up these protests and these peaceful actions — to let the public know that we still have the patience to wait for the government to respond.”
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