Laurel Chor is a photographer and journalist based in Hong Kong.
It’s been 10 days since the police first laid siege to Hong Kong Polytechnic University, announcing that all the protesters who remained on campus may be charged with rioting, which can carry up to a 10-year sentence. More than 1,000 protesters had taken over the university, barricading the entrances and blocking the adjacent Cross-Harbour Tunnel.
Now, only a handful remain — if any. The police say at least 800 have surrendered peacefully, including 300 under the age of 18. Some were arrested while trying to flee, and an unknown but not insignificant number escaped successfully. The university grounds have become an eerie ghost town resembling the aftermath of an apocalypse: Maggots are proliferating in the kitchen, trash cans are overflowing and the remnants of assembly lines for petrol bombs are scattered around campus.
I was on campus when the siege began Nov. 17, and I stayed until Nov. 22 — from Sunday to Friday. As time went on, I saw protesters become increasingly fearful and desperate, taking daring risks to escape the perimeter and evade the police.
A couple of days into the siege, I watched a protester wearing a mask descend down an open manhole. It seemed like an isolated case until I haphazardly lifted a plastic crate covering a manhole and discovered, to my shock, a masked face gazing up at me.
As the sun rose, I witnessed more and more protesters attempt to climb down sewage drains. One thin young man told me he made his way through a drain so narrow he was wriggling on his belly. After an hour he emerged only to discover he had traveled a few dozen feet and was still on campus.
Even as young people continued to assess the sewage pipes, a group of firemen stood around a manhole as their colleague donned special diving gear and climbed down into the sewage drains to make sure no one was stuck inside. One of them spoke softly to a group of protesters dressed in hazmat suits, probably scavenged from a science lab, who surrounded him and pleaded for help to find a way out.
“We just want to make sure you’re safe,” he told them, trying his best to deter them from using the sewage pipes, but not exactly stopping them, either.
Many of those holed up inside felt they had no choice but to turn themselves in, but decided to do so by asking for medical help. They preferred being escorted out by medics rather than handing themselves over directly to the police, whom they feared would abuse them. “Either way you’re dead, it’s just a matter of how dead you are,” one protester told me after deciding to surrender himself to medics.
Medical workers wrapped them in emergency blankets as they huddled in groups shivering. They took seriously every health complaint, however minor — even if it was clear that many were using them as a ruse to leave campus for medical reasons. The kindness with which the firefighters and medics treated protesters made it clear they didn’t perceive them as dangerous. They were simply trying to keep the protesters — who were mostly in their teens and early 20s — from hurting themselves.
But that same day, a new police commissioner, Chris Tang, took office. He compared the tactics of “radical protesters” to those used by “terrorists,” echoing the line used repeatedly by government and police officials alike. Four days before the siege began, a police spokesperson had compared the protesters to “cancer cells” spreading between universities.
There is no doubt the protesters engaged in dangerous behavior around campus in their attempts to stave off police: They blocked a major tunnel, set large fires on campus, threw countless molotov cocktails, fired arrows with bows — even piercing one police officer in the leg — and used giant makeshift catapults to pelt armored vehicles with bricks.
Yet, after two days of almost nonstop clashes — during which officers used rubber bullets, foam rounds, tear gas, pepper bullets, water cannons and brutal arrest tactics — the police appeared to change their strategy to oust the remaining protesters. They let teachers, university workers, social workers, religious leaders and elected officials inside to persuade the protesters to surrender. Even I was surprised when I saw “hardcore frontliners” — teenagers who carried weapons and had told me they’d fight until the end — surrender after speaking to social workers.
What I saw at the university convinced me of two things. First, despite the police’s brutal crackdown and harsh language, most didn’t believe the protesters posed an immediate danger to the Hong Kong public. Why else would they have allowed people in to talk protesters down? And, second, protesters can be reasoned with and could be willing to talk — just not to the police, who have all but completely lost public trust.
On Sunday, Hong Kong held historic district council elections in which close to 3 million people voted, representing a 71.2 percent turnout and giving the pro-democratic camp 17 out of 18 district councils. Not coincidentally, no tear gas was fired that day. The election, like the university siege that is just winding down, has a lesson for Hong Kong authorities: If they make people feel like they are heard, violence can be avoided. Will the police — and the government — learn?