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Hong Kong protests

Christmas Eve chaos in Hong Kong sparked by fight over donations

Fresh unrest follows arrests at crowdfunding platform for protesters

Riot police walk a shopping mall in Hong Kong on Dec. 24 as unrest returned to the city on Christmas Eve.   © AP

HONG KONG -- Police and demonstrators clashed at shopping malls here on Christmas Eve after authorities froze millions of dollars donated to support pro-democracy protesters.

Black-clad activists gathered at malls across Hong Kong on Tuesday, singing protest songs in front of shops considered friendly to mainland China.

Tensions escalated around 8 p.m. local time when police in riot gear entered the malls. Security personnel used pepper spray on protesters and arrested several people. Meanwhile, tear gas was fired in clashes between police and protesters on streets.

The chaos on Christmas Eve -- a time when Hong Kongers typically gather for parties or dine out -- marks a return of unrest after a period of calm that failed to ease citizens' frustrations. 

This latest confrontation in the Chinese territory was triggered by police saying last week that they froze 70 million Hong Kong dollars ($9 million) raised via crowdfunding for Spark Alliance, which helps protesters in the city pay legal fees after they are arrested.

Authorities also arrested four members of Spark Alliance on money laundering charges, an allegation the group rejected in a Facebook post. A Spark Alliance post accused police of trying to "shut down support platforms" for the pro-democracy movement.

Spark Alliance is the second-biggest crowdfunding group to support Hong Kong protesters. The crackdown prompted a backlash from citizens who say police are targeting charitable activities.

HSBC, the city's largest bank, closed an account belonging to Spark Alliance in November. On Monday, 45,000 supporters of the group gathered in Hong Kong's Central business district, which houses the main building of HSBC, according to the organizers' count. The bank sent employees home early, media outlets reported.

Hong Kong's often-violent protests, which began on a wide scale in June, had calmed temporarily after pro-democracy parties won an overwhelming victory in November's local elections. But the city's Beijing-backed authorities have yet to answer protesters' demands, and citizens have grown impatient with hard-line tactics used by police.

The demonstrations have produced a chilling effect on restaurants and other Hong Kong businesses. Reservations at Lan Kwai Fong, a popular square for dining, are down 20% to 30% from a year earlier, an industry group said.

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