HONG KONG — A university campus turned into a combat zone of police tear gas and pro-democracy protesters hurling bricks and firebombs Tuesday amid a dramatic surge of violence across Hong Kong that could threaten local elections this month.
The violence escalated this week after police gunfire wounded a 21-year-old protester Monday.
The same day, protesters doused a 57-year-old man with a liquid and set him on fire. Both victims remained in the hospital Tuesday.
Authorities in Hong Kong and Beijing must decide whether to go ahead with local elections on Nov. 24. If the vote is not held, many protesters would view it as another sign of the power they wield from the streets.
More questions about the vote were raised Tuesday. The People’s Daily, the Communist Party’s mouthpiece, published a commentary on its social media accounts that backed Hong Kong’s crackdown on demonstrators and said the vote should proceed only if calm is restored in the semiautonomous Chinese territory.
“Only by supporting the police force in decisively putting down the riots can [Hong Kong] return to peace and hold fair elections, to help Hong Kong start again,” it said. Facing escalating threats, it said, Hong Kong’s government is “entitled to regulate the street violence instigated by opposition parties and extremist forces.”
At the Chinese University, a stretch of campus became a no man’s land.
Black-clad demonstrators, behind umbrellas and table tops, hurled bricks and gasoline bombs. Police fired rubber bullets and tear gas from across a narrow bridge, releasing stinging pink and orange clouds.
At one point, police offered to stop firing tear gas if students pulled back. Later, however, they deployed a water cannon to the university to force protesters to disperse. Students remained guarding the university through the night, even when police had left.
“We have already suffered through hundreds of tear gas and bullets. If we leave, they will arrest us all,” a masked protester said.
A university fitness room was converted into a makeshift first aid center to manage injuries. According to the Hospital Authority, 51 people were injured between 7:30 a.m. and midnight on Tuesday, the youngest of whom was a baby.
War zone battle in Chinese University of Hong Kong now. pic.twitter.com/29oT7wutzt— EYEPRESS NEWS AGENCY (@eyepressnews) November 12, 2019
Clashes also flared in other spots around Hong Kong, including the City University and central business districts during midday. Near the City University, protesters rampaged through a shopping mall and set a Christmas tree ablaze.
“Our society has been pushed to the brink of a total breakdown,” Senior Police Superintendent Kong Wing-cheung told reporters. He added that almost 300 people had been arrested on Monday alone, 60 percent of them students.
Hong Kong’s universities are home to thousands of international students, a majority of whom come from mainland China. On Tuesday, the Chinese Students & Scholars Association at City University posted on the Chinese messaging app WeChat that they could provide transportation for students hoping to return to Shenzhen, the Chinese city that borders Hong Kong. Several Chinese students interviewed by The Washington Post were planning to fly back home or were making travel plans.
“I was so scared when I came across the protesters, all in black,” said a mainland Chinese student who was caught in the clashes at Hong Kong’s Chinese University, giving only her last name, Yang. “The sound of bricks being thrown still echoes in my ears.”
Yang, 23, has returned to Shenzhen and said she will return to Hong Kong only when the situation is “normal.”
The district elections would allow a polarized city to vote in Hong Kong’s only relatively free electoral exercise.
District councilors’ responsibilities are largely local, but their seats make up a sizable portion of the committee that selects Hong Kong’s chief executive, with the other half handpicked by the Chinese government. The pro-democracy camp hopes to capitalize on public anger at the city’s Beijing-backed administration, which has deployed increasing force against protesters demanding full democracy and police accountability.
Hong Kong’s leader, Carrie Lam, whose approval rating has plummeted to a record low of about 20 percent, has the support of Chinese leader Xi Jinping. But with that backing comes an expectation that Lam will use necessary means to restore order to Hong Kong, now in its sixth month of demonstrations.
Since Lam invoked emergency powers to ban the wearing of face masks in public assemblies — protesters use the masks to protect themselves from surveillance and tear gas — some lawmakers worry that the government could use the same powers to postpone the election, citing political turmoil, said Dennis Kwok Wing-hang, a lawmaker representing Hong Kong’s legal sector.
Fears of cancellation are not unfounded. In recent weeks, authorities have arrested several pro-democracy lawmakers and candidates running for district council seats. Democracy activist Joshua Wong was barred from running. Violence against councilors has increased: Pro-establishment figure Junius Ho was stabbed while campaigning, and the ear of a pro-democracy district councilor was bitten off during a tussle involving a knife-wielding assailant. Jimmy Sham, an organizer of pro-democracy marches and a candidate in the election, was attacked by a gang wielding hammers.
Asked Tuesday whether she would consider postponing the vote, Lam told reporters that the government “hopes that the elections can continue as planned.”
In recent days, Hong Kong’s Electoral Affairs Commission called on the public to “stop all threats and violence to support the holding of elections in a peaceful and orderly manner.”
Although pro-Beijing politicians are likely to face electoral losses, postponing this month’s vote would only make this worse, said Ma Ngok, a professor of Hong Kong politics at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
“Voters would see this as manipulation and may come out in bigger numbers,” he said, adding that there is no legal provision to cancel elections, only to postpone them for a short period.
Although moderates in the pro-Beijing camp consider the elections a way to vent public anger peacefully and want them to proceed, Ma sees a power struggle in which hard-liners want emergency powers used to cancel the elections entirely and thus maintain their grip on power. But declaring a state of emergency to do so would “send a major shock through the international community” that would irreparably damage Hong Kong’s reputation, Ma said.
A recent survey by the Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute found that 70 percent of respondents opposed delaying the elections.
“It’s more important than ever to have this election,” said a 20-year-old engineering student manning a protest barricade at the University of Hong Kong. He spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution. If the election is not held, he said, “the government will be cutting off yet another avenue of political reform and will push people to take more radical action.”
Anna Fifield in Beijing, Shibani Mahtani in Washington and Tiffany Liang in Hong Kong contributed to this report.