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Hong Kong protesters make last stand as police close in on besieged university

Hong Kong police fired tear gas and rubber bullets on Nov. 18 to force pro-democracy protesters trying to escape a besieged university to surrender. (Video: Reuters)
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HONG KONG — Thousands of Hong Kong protesters flocked to the area around a besieged Hong Kong college campus Monday evening, clashing with police as they tried to help hundreds of students trapped inside to leave safely, while political leaders and school principals acted as mediators to stave off a bloody end to a days-long standoff there.

Police blocked exits and told exhausted protesters to come out of the Polytechnic University on Monday to be arrested. When some attempted to escape, officers forced them back with tear gas and rubber bullets and made dozens of arrests. As night fell, and with explosions and black smoke emanating from the grounds, police repeated demands for the demonstrators — some of whom have been there for days — to surrender.

The situation threatened to be among the most chaotic and violent since protests began in March. By 10 p.m. Monday, Hong Kong’s hospital authority said 116 people, between the ages of 6 and 84, had been sent to hospitals in the city. Only one was in serious condition, the authority added.

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Late Monday, a deal was reached between the police and mediators to allow those under 18 still sealed off inside Polytechnic University to leave safely, without arrest. Under the terms of the deal, they would still have their pictures and identification details recorded by authorities.

According to protesters on the campus, some inside were as young as 10. A live broadcast of the area around the campus showed dozens of people walking out of the campus in the early hours Tuesday.

Among those negotiating with the police on behalf of those inside the university was Eric Cheung, the principal law lecturer at the University of Hong Kong.

“We can accompany you all to walk out safely from the campus, without tears. We can make sure you won't suffer from violence,” he told protesters at the site, according to a live broadcast of the event, adding that he could not guarantee those over 18 would not be arrested.

The developments drew sharp comments from U.S. officials, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who tweeted that the United States was “gravely concerned by deepening political unrest and violence.” The Chinese government, Pompeo concluded, “must honor its promises to the Hong Kong people, who only want the freedoms & liberties they have been promised.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), in remarks delivered on the floor of the Senate, urged President Trump to speak publicly in support of the protesters.

“The world should hear from him directly that the United States stands with these brave men and women,” McConnell said. In Hong Kong, he added, “the world is seeing the true face of the Chinese Communist Party.”

Earlier, a voice message described as being from a protester stuck inside the university pleading for help was widely shared on social media. He said many of the hundreds trapped inside for the past 30 hours of the confrontation were injured and exhausted, and he called on people to converge on the university to help those trapped inside.

“The effort to surround the police at PolyU from all four corners is our final hope,” the message said.

At rallies across the city, people expressed support for the trapped students. “Save PolyU! Save the students!” they chanted. In the densely packed streets adjoining the university, demonstrators using umbrellas as shields edged toward police lines and were repulsed with tear gas.

Protesters were hoping to strain police resources and draw them away from the campus into new battles elsewhere, so those in the university could escape.

As protests raged in Hong Kong on Nov. 17, a police vehicle being used to clear a bridge was hit by a Molotov cocktail and forced to retreat. (Video: Reuters)

As the evening wore on, crowds grew and a fresh battle flared in the Kowloon area as demonstrators moved to break the police blockade of the campus. Some of the protesters trapped inside the college grounds managed to escape and were whisked away on motorcycles. Others were injured in the process, sustaining injuries to their limbs as they jumped off bridges and railings away from police.

A woman who identified herself as Mrs. Wong, in her 50s with gray hair, stood near a front line of protesters preparing for clashes with police outside a hospital in the Kowloon neighborhood. She said she had not seen her son, a protester, for days, and had gone to protest hot spots to look for him.

“I don’t know whether my son is here,” she said, gesturing toward the protesters, crying. “Where is the Hong Kong government? Where is our chief executive? Do the riot police just want our kids to die, surrounding them from all corners like this?” Police soon fired tear gas, forcing her to flee.

Hong Kong police move on university campus, threaten live rounds, retreat before growing flames

Unable to forge a political settlement to end an uprising that has shattered Hong Kong’s reputation as a stable base for business, the city’s embattled leadership has appeared increasingly paralyzed even as it has clamped down harder on demonstrators.

The spiraling violence and heavy-handed crackdown have sharpened concerns about China’s “one country, two systems” framework under which Hong Kong, led by Chief Executive Carrie Lam, is supposed to enjoy relative freedoms and autonomy from Beijing until 2047.

After months of dissent, protests continue in Hong Kong

Dec. 1, 2019 | Protesters flood a street during a rally. (Vincent Thian/AP)

At the Polytechnic University, a front-line protester, who declined to give her name out of fear of retribution, said people were frantically trying to find a way out of the campus in the face of the police encirclement. Protesters who broke inside a doctor’s office left blood around the room — and a note apologizing.

Some 500 to 600 students remained trapped, said Derek Liu, head of the university’s student union. PolyU’s president, Jin-Guang Teng, in a video statement urged students to hand themselves over.

Nearby, broken bricks, scaffolding and fences were strewn across the streets of the Tsim Sha Tsui shopping district.

Behind the barricade, Hong Kong protesters turn a university into a fortress

“We feel very disappointed about the government,” said Peter, a 30-year-old clerk who was dressed in business attire and declined to give his full name as he watched tear gas billow out from an alleyway. “There are many ways to solve the problem, like dialogue. The government hasn’t done anything to solve the issue, instead forcing protesters to violence.”

Some of the city’s working men and women are using their spending power to help front-line protesters confront police during the demonstrations in Hong Kong. (Video: Megumi Lim/The Washington Post)

At a news conference, regional police commander Cheuk Hau-yip said officers had given protesters “enough time and enough warnings” to disperse.

He said there was no plan for police to break into the campus for now. “If they surrender and come out, we will arrange the appropriate medical help for them,” Cheuk said.

The violence on campus and the police response point to a lack of leadership and confusion among Hong Kong leaders and Beijing, said Minxin Pei, an expert on Chinese politics at Claremont McKenna College in California. Even as police threatened to use live rounds to crush the occupation at Polytechnic, Lam was notably absent from public view all weekend, at a time when Chinese leader Xi Jinping was traveling overseas.

“Carrie Lam really does not want to be seen as responsible for any large-scale violence at this point, as Beijing will make the ultimate decision whether to escalate to use live rounds,” Pei said. “I don’t think Beijing wants to cause massive bloodshed, but the decisions made in Beijing over the next 48 hours will be crucial.”

In a new setback for Lam, Hong Kong’s High Court ruled Monday that the government’s use of a British colonial-era emergency ordinance to ban face masks at public gatherings was unconstitutional. Lam had introduced the measure to aid police in identifying protesters and effectively expand powers of arrest.

Lam visited an injured police officer in the hospital Monday, but she did not make public remarks, and her office did not respond to a request for comment. In a message on Facebook later, she condemned protesters and urged them to obey police.

The clashes renewed concerns that the Hong Kong government might suspend local district elections on Sunday. Patrick Nip, a Hong Kong official responsible for mainland affairs, said the vote depended on whether protesters halted violence.

With the crisis escalating, fears are mounting that China’s ruling Communist Party might attempt a lethal intervention reminiscent of 1989, when soldiers opened fire in Tiananmen Square, killing hundreds, perhaps thousands, of student demonstrators.

Chinese state media, meanwhile, urged harsher measures. In a commentary Monday on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, Hu Xijin, editor of the Global Times tabloid, called for Hong Kong police to be authorized to use rifles against demonstrators, who have armed themselves with molotov cocktails, bows and arrows, bricks and other weapons. Snipers should use live ammunition to take out armed demonstrators, Hu said, adding that “if there are rioter deaths, police do not have to assume legal liability.”

In an English-language editorial, the China Daily said Xi had urged Hong Kong’s government to take “firmer action” to restore order, in his strongest statement to date. “The [Hong Kong] government, which has taken a relatively soft line up to now, should shoulder its responsibility to safeguard the lives and well-being of Hong Kong’s law-abiding residents and take more decisive measures to counter the violence and uphold the rule of law,” the editorial said.

Pressured by a trade war with the United States, criticism of China’s repression of ethnic minorities in Xinjiang and a slowing domestic economy, Xi has sought to project a tough line on Hong Kong. But a bloody crackdown would play out under the glare of the world’s media and further inflame worries about Hong Kong’s loss of autonomy.

China’s Foreign Ministry said Monday that no one should underestimate Beijing’s determination to safeguard China’s sovereignty and Hong Kong’s stability.

China’s Defense Ministry also weighed in, noting the presence of the People’s Liberation Army garrison in Hong Kong that over the weekend participated in the removal of debris and barricades left by protesters.

A protester caught fire before being extinguished by fellow demonstrators during a night of violent clashes on the Hong Kong streets on Nov. 18. (Video: HKPUSU Campus Radio via Storyful)

“The PLA Hong Kong garrison is determined, confident and capable of protecting national security, development interests and the long-term prosperity and stability of Hong Kong,” the ministry said.

The protests flared in June over a now-abandoned proposal to allow criminal suspects to be extradited to mainland China. But the movement has grown into a wider pushback against China’s growing reach into Hong Kong, encompassing demands for full democracy and police accountability. And what had started as weekend protests in the city’s business district have now taken on new life as protests have spilled into the workweek and taken on new life in the university campuses spread throughout the city.

Emily Lau, a pro-democracy politician, said Lam was unable to do anything, because “she is waiting for orders from Beijing.” But Xi was caught in a power struggle, she said, and his enemies within the party were “happy to see Hong Kong burn” because it made him appear unable to control the situation.

Among the protesters, Hong Kong’s general population, the local government and central authorities in Beijing, “the weakest of the four players is our government,” Jasper Tsang, who is the former head of Hong Kong’s legislature and belonged to the pro-Beijing camp, said over the weekend as he described a city in paralysis.

“The [Hong Kong] government, it is incapable of doing anything — Carrie Lam has admitted it,” Tsang told the Hong Kong Free Press in an interview. “There is no strong decision-making mechanism. [Lam] listens to the hard-liners, and there is no politician who could take responsibility.”

Samson Yuen, assistant professor of political science at Hong Kong’s Lingnan University, said Hong Kong’s government has been absent throughout the crisis.

“It would actually be quite surprising it they came out at this moment and suddenly offered a political solution,” he said. “It’s almost designed to be like this, from the moment they decided not to negotiate with protesters. That just means a suppressive outcome.”

Shih reported from Beijing. Shibani Mahtani in Chicago and David Crawshaw and Ryan Ho Kilpatrick in Hong Kong contributed to this report.

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