After Pitched Battle, Hong Kong Police Move on University Campus, Begin Mass Arrests, Threaten Live Fire

HONG KONG (The Washington Post) —
Police fires a water cannon during clashes with anti-government protesters, outside Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU) in Hong Kong, China, November 17, 2019. (Reuters/Athit Perawongmetha)

After an intense, day-long battle, police surrounded anti-government protesters inside a university late Sunday and began to make mass arrests, escalating the struggle over Hong Kong’s campuses in the city’s now-six-month struggle for democracy.

Skirmishes between police and protesters raged into the night outside Hong Kong’s Polytechnic University, leaving the air thick with tear gas and a police vehicle burning.

As police continued to bombard protesters with water cannon, they warned stronger measures could follow.

“We will use the minimal force,” police said in a social media video. “We are asking the rioters to stop assaulting the police using cars, gas bombs and bows and arrows. Otherwise we will use force including live rounds.”

The all-day standoff began early with police pummeling front-line protesters with water cannons that streamed irritating blue liquid and volleys of tear gas. Protesters responded with barrages of Molotov cocktails. At one point, a police media liaison officer was struck in the calf with an arrow.

Much of the battle centered on the bridge leading to the campus from the nearby metro station, which protesters had filled with barricades. As night fell, they repeatedly set it alight to prevent the police from advancing on to the university.

Police announced at 9 p.m. that the “next round of operation” was beginning, leading to speculation that they would storm the campus. They threatened to arrest those involved on charges of rioting, which can incur penalties of up to 10 years in prison.

University authorities had implored students not to engage in violence. In a statement, they said they were “gravely concerned that the spiraling radical illicit activities will cause not only a tremendous safety threat on campus, but also class suspension over an indefinite period of time.”

The university in Kowloon is next to a key cross-harbor tunnel that protesters blocked in recent days by setting fire to toll booths. Universities have become the latest flash points in the protests that have rocked this semiautonomous territory to its core.

In the face of an increasingly harsh police crackdown, protesters have taken up an eclectic spectrum of weapons, including bows and arrows and javelins – probably appropriated from campus athletic departments.

In Sunday’s battles, though, protesters’ key weapon appeared to be gas bombs. At one point, a police van speeding toward their barricades was set alight by a flurry of Molotov cocktails and forced to retreat.

Polytechnic University remained one of the last campus strongholds following an intense week of protests centered on the city’s universities. After police laid siege to the Chinese University of Hong Kong last week, protesters barricaded other campuses as well as major roads, drawing the city and schools to a halt.

On Saturday, members of the People’s Liberation Army, China’s military, left their barracks to help clear the roadblocks that protesters had erected around universities. It was the PLA’s first appearance on the streets of Hong Kong since the pro-democracy protests erupted in June.

As a semiautonomous territory, Hong Kong is legally distinct from mainland China. While the army’s presence here was not unprecedented – it also appeared in September 2018 to assist with disaster relief after a severe hit from Typhoon Mangkhut – the move was a subtle but significant development. Under Hong Kong law, the PLA may not interfere in local affairs unless invited by the Hong Kong government.

On Saturday, the Hong Kong government denied that it had invited the PLA to clear the roadblocks, saying the work was a “voluntary community activity,” according to Chinese state-owned CGTN. The development drew sharp criticism from pro-democracy lawmakers, who said it was illegal and a PR stunt by Beijing to normalize the army’s presence in the territory.

At a peaceful rally in Hong Kong’s central business district, Alex said the development was unacceptable.

“They cannot be volunteers because they are soldiers,” said the 35-year-old clerk who gave just his first name for fear of retribution. “They’re conveying a message that they will be going out. They will take action if the situation is not getting better.”

The Education Bureau announced that all classes would be canceled on Monday. Classes were suspended for most of last week as protests and a strike paralyzed the city. Two university campuses have called off classes for the rest of the semester.

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