HONG KONG — After a full day battling anti-government demonstrators outside a major university with water cannons and tear gas, police surrounded the protesters late Sunday, began making arrests and warned that they would meet further resistance with live fire.
The demonstrators, who countered cannon streams of stinging blue dye with petrol bombs, held their ground into early Monday morning local time. The standoff was a tense new escalation in the now-six-month struggle for democracy that has moved in recent days to this territory’s campuses.
It also showed how many young protesters have followed a steady path of radicalization as the movement presses forward with significant public support. While police insist on ending the protests and neutralizing their core of frontliners, it grows increasingly unclear where the unrest will lead, how it will end, and if the damage can be undone.
Protesters at Hong Kong’s Polytechnic University rained molotov cocktails down on riot police officers and their vehicles Sunday in one of the longest days of fighting since the demonstrations began in June. One police media liaison officer was struck in the calf with an arrow. Skirmishes raged into the night, leaving the air thick with tear gas and a police vehicle burning.
As police tried to move in on campus, they warned stronger measures could follow. They sealed the exits, leaving hundreds of students trapped inside the university.
“We will use the minimal force,” police said in a Facebook 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.”
In a video widely shared on social media, a protester in a raincoat and a full-face respirator said he would stay at the university “until the end.”
“What will happen to [the students] if we leave?” he asked. “I am so afraid, but I have no choice.”
Just before daybreak Monday, officers from a special tactical unit entered the campus and made dozens of arrests, according to local news reporters at the site. A live feed showed a university entrance engulfed in flames.
Protesters throw molotov cocktails at a police truck on Sunday outside Hong Kong’s Polytechnic University.
By early Monday, police had not used live ammunition at the university. Elsewhere, police fired several rounds at protesters who were pelting officers in an ambulance with bricks, but they hit no one, according to witnesses and a video of the incident.
A spokesman for the police force did not immediately confirm the use of live rounds.
The current pro-democracy movement was sparked by a bill that would have allowed extraditions to mainland China. Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam eventually scrapped that legislation, but not before the movement had grown to include the long-held demand that the people be allowed to vote for their own leaders and remain autonomous from Beijing. For many here, the events of the past months have eroded their trust in the territory’s institutions — and the police in particular — while giving rise to a new generation of young protesters who believe this to be the defining fight of their lives.
The all-day standoff began early with police pummeling front-line protesters with volleys of tear gas and water cannons that streamed irritating blue liquid. Protesters responded with petrol bombs.
Much of the battle centered on the bridge leading to 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 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.”
Anti-government protesters throw molotov cocktails.
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 was one of the last campus strongholds following an intense week of protests centered on the city’s universities. The clashes over the last week, which unusually spilled into the workweek, were prompted by the death of a young protester following a police operation earlier in the month.
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.
Protesters are sprayed by a water cannon outside.
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.
Police prepare to remove an arrow from the leg of an officer.
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.
Lawmaker Cheng Chung-Tai, a graduate of Polytechnic University, called the standoff there a “humanitarian crisis.”
“Carrie Lam’s murderous regime has resorted to brutality, which makes Hong Kong become a state of savage existence and astonishes the international communities,” he said in a statement early Monday.
At a peaceful rally Sunday in Hong Kong’s central business district, Alex said the involvement of the PLA 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.
Tiffany Liang and Timothy McLaughlin contributed to this report.