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Saturday, December 07, 2019

Hong Kong violence escalates as police and protesters clash at university

The clashes were the culmination of the most disruptive week of the monthslong protests, a period that has focused a global spotlight on the growing desperation of the pro-democracy activists and aggressive efforts by the police to suppress them.

By: New York Times | Hong Kong | Published: November 18, 2019 8:40:42 am
hong kong protests, hong kong violence, hong kong tension, carrie lam, hong kong crisis, hong kong news, world news, indian express Riot police spray a blue liquid toward protesters near the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, Nov. 17, 2019.  (Lam Yik Fei/The New York Times)

Written by Edward Wong, Mike Ives, Tiffany May and Katherine Li

Hundreds of Hong Kong activists armed with petrol bombs and bows-and-arrows Monday battled riot police who have laid a dayslong siege to a university, the most violent confrontation yet in a half-year of protests.

Early Monday, the police tried storming the campus at the main entrance and made some arrests. But the occupiers fought back with dozens of petrol bombs and set barricades ablaze, forcing the police to retreat, at least temporarily.

As day broke, the occupiers and the police were still locked in the standoff at Hong Kong Polytechnic University that began Saturday night, and smoke billowed from the grounds. Some protesters Monday morning raced for the exits, only to be met with volleys of tear gas.

The police used tear gas, rubber bullets, water cannons and armored vehicles to try to breach the barricades all day Sunday. But activists resisted into the night. One police officer was hit in the leg by an arrow, while student leaders said protesters suffered eye injuries and hypothermia after being struck by the water cannon.

The clashes were the culmination of the most disruptive week of the monthslong protests, a period that has focused a global spotlight on the growing desperation of the pro-democracy activists and aggressive efforts by the police to suppress them. It is a sign the conflict is turning more violent as the territory prepares to hold elections later this month.

The activists are struggling against the Chinese Communist Party in Beijing to preserve autonomy for Hong Kong, a political system guaranteed for 50 years by an agreement between Beijing and London. The British handed over the global financial hub in 1997.

hong kong protests, hong kong violence, hong kong tension, carrie lam, hong kong crisis, hong kong news, world news, indian express The siege at the university escalated on Sunday as the police swooped in and threatened to use live rounds against anti-government protesters. (Lam Yik Fei/The New York Times)

The rising tensions and a potential of greater control over Hong Kong’s political and legal systems by the Communist Party have raised questions over the long-term commercial viability of Hong Kong and the integrity of its fraying social fabric.

In Washington, U.S. officials said they were monitoring the clashes as well as reviewing a report by The New York Times on leaked internal Communist Party documents showing how party leaders, including President Xi Jinping, had set up internment camps to hold 1 million or more Muslims in another frontier area, Xinjiang.

Trump administration officials and Congress have been holding discussions on whether to impose separate sets of sanctions on Chinese and Hong Kong officials for human rights abuses in Xinjiang and Hong Kong. But President Donald Trump has held back for fear of upsetting trade talks.

Hong Kong is scheduled to hold district council elections next Sunday. Some residents worry the government might postpone the vote, though Carrie Lam, the chief executive of the territory, has said the elections will be held on time.

A small number of supporters of Communist Party rule, as well as a Hu Xijin, the chief editor of Global Times, a state-run news organization in Beijing, had become so outraged by the Sunday clashes that they said the police should use live ammunition.

The occupation of the university has forced a weeklong shutdown of a tunnel leading to the business districts on Hong Kong Island from Kowloon, and activists said they planned more traffic blockades Monday.

The university president, Jin-Guang Teng, said Monday morning that he had negotiated a temporary truce with the police, but suggested occupiers still would have to turn themselves in to the police after leaving the campus.

hong kong protests, hong kong violence, hong kong tension, carrie lam, hong kong crisis, hong kong news, world news, indian express Protesters clash with riot police officers near the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, early Nov. 18, 2019. The besieged university was gripped with tension into the early hours of Monday morning, as the police force threatened to use lethal force to arrest anyone who did not surrender. (Lam Yik Fei/The New York Times)

The clashes of the past week began when protesters changed from a regular routine of weekend protests to disrupting traffic on workdays. The disruptions and attempts by the police to breach campuses — considered a last refuge by activists — quickly led to protesters occupying five universities, two of which sit astride key transportation routes.

The death of a student from a fall earlier this month and two dramatic violent acts also set the city on edge — a traffic policeman shot an unarmed protester, and activists set a man on fire after he confronted them.

Protesters abandoned four of the universities over the weekend, but those at Polytechnic University held on. Hardcore activists converged there, while more moderate ones left Sunday as the police surrounded the campus.

The police arrested dozens trying to flee, including first-aid volunteers. Mainstream supporters of the movement drove to the campus to try to get the police to back off. On Sunday night, the police threatened to use lethal force if the protesters did not leave.

“I know that there is a possibility that the police will fire live bullets on us tonight, but right now, we have no choice,” William Lau, 22, a protester on campus, said around midnight. He estimated there were about 500 activists on site at that time.

About 50 were arrested after trying to leave, he said, so others were wary of trying to exit. “The police would never just let us walk out like that,” he said. “I know that some want to leave now, but don’t know how, while a fair number wants to stay and fight.”

Right outside the campus, pro-democracy lawmakers, a top Roman Catholic official, a U.S. pastor and a student leader called on the Hong Kong government to intervene to prevent bloodshed. “I want to seek help from the government to stop the police force from their operation and avoid tragedy,” said Owan Li, a student representative on the university council.

As the police fired tear gas, Bishop Joseph Ha tried entering with the lawmakers and the U.S. pastor, William Devlin of New York City, but were turned away by the police. “If the police are to launch a clearance, they should use as minimal force as possible because lives are precious,” Ha said.

Devlin said in a telephone interview that he had been on campus for about four hours as the clashes unfolded and had left, but was trying to reenter. “They were not being deterred,” he said of the protesters. “They were ready to be arrested. They said, ‘We stand for freedom, dignity, democracy, human rights.’ ”

Devlin said he had been on the front line in the late afternoon Sunday when the police used tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannons against protesters. He said he had seen protesters throw 10 to 20 petrol bombs to deter the police from advancing. At least two were armed with bows and arrows, he said.

Louis Lau, the police superintendent, said before midnight that an officer had fired a live round at a vehicle charging toward officers in an area near campus.

The violence came after protesters at the university Friday prepared for a long siege, as they poured gasoline into glass bottles to make hundreds or thousands of bombs and practiced throwing those into an empty swimming pool. They also did target practice with catapult-style slingshots and bows-and-arrows.

The police began advancing around 10 p.m. Saturday, and the clashes reached a high pitch Sunday afternoon.

On Saturday, Chinese soldiers jogged out of their barracks near Hong Kong Baptist University and cleared bricks from streets that had been placed there by protesters to block traffic. The soldiers wore T-shirts and basketball jerseys, and carried brooms. The Hong Kong garrison of the People’s Liberation Army is based in 19 sites once occupied by the British military. Even though Chinese troops have been stationed in Hong Kong since 1997, they almost never venture into the city.

The cleanup, which was lauded by Chinese state-run news organizations, prompted a torrent of criticism from local residents. Pro-democracy lawmakers issued a statement saying that the local government and the Chinese military had ignored restrictions imposed on the troops by local laws.

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