Protesters Risk Dramatic Escape at Embattled Hong Kong University

By Reuters
November 18, 2019 Updated: November 18, 2019

HONG KONG—Dozens of Hong Kong protesters staged a dramatic escape from a university campus sealed off by police on Nov. 18 by shimmying down plastic hosing from a bridge and fleeing on waiting motorbikes as the police fired projectiles.

Many more protesters remained trapped inside the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, and two prominent figures were allowed by police onto the campus late on Monday to mediate, a sign that there is a growing risk of bloodshed.

“The situation is getting more and more dangerous,” Jasper Tsang, a pro-Beijing politician who is the former head of Hong Kong’s Legislative Council, told Reuters soon after he arrived at the campus.

As he spoke, big explosions were heard and flames flared up at a distant part of the campus.

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A fire is seen at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU) in Hong Kong, on the early morning of Nov. 18, 2019. (Athit Perawongmetha/Reuters)

The university is at the center of a standoff in the past week that has seen the most intense violence in five months of pro-democracy demonstrations.

Some of the protesters who escaped on Monday did so by lowering themselves about 10 meters from a bridge they had occupied on the campus to a flyover below. They then sped off on the back of motorcycles which were already waiting or quickly arrived.

A number of them appeared subsequently to have been arrested, a Reuters witness said.

Other protesters tried repeatedly to break into the campus but police fired tear gas and water cannon Monday to push them back.

The size of demonstrations has dwindled in recent weeks, but clashes between protesters and police have worsened since early last week, when police shot a protester, a man was set on fire and the city’s financial district was filled with tear gas in the middle of the workday.

The city’s hospital authority reported 116 injuries on Monday, including one female in serious condition.

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Medical staff carry a protester out of the campus of Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU) during clashes with police in Hong Kong on Nov. 18, 2019. (Thomas Peter/Reuters)

Tightened Cordon

Earlier on Monday, police tightened their cordon around the Polytechnic University, and fired rubber bullets and tear gas to pin back a few hundred pro-democracy protesters and stop them from fleeing.

Dozens, choking on the tear gas, tried to leave the campus by breaking through police lines, but were pushed back.

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Pro-democracy demonstrators run from a water cannon during clashes with police near the Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU) in Hong Kong on Nov.18, 2019. (Adnan Abidi/Reuters)

“If the police decide to come in by force, to make their arrests then there will be very strong resistance from the protesters, and we’re afraid we may see bloodshed. This is something that we want to avoid,” Tsang said.

Tsang, who with legal scholar Eric Cheung was the first prominent mediator allowed by police to enter the campus, said there were young children and elderly people trapped inside the campus and that it was a priority to get the children out first.

Police said officers had been deployed “on the periphery” of the campus for a week, appealing to “rioters” to leave.

“All roads to Poly U are blocked,” said a policeman who stopped Reuters reporters at a road block on Monday night. “All are blocked.”

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A road blocked near the Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU) in Hong Kong on Nov. 18, 2019. (Adnan Abidi/Reuters)

Witnesses estimated there were more than 300 people still on the campus.

Arrests Mount

Police say 4,491 people, aged from 11 to 83, have been arrested since protests began in June.

Demonstrators are angry at what they see as Chinese meddling in Hong Kong’s promised freedoms when the then British colony returned to Chinese rule in 1997. They say they are responding to excessive use of force by police.

China’s foreign ministry said on Monday no one should underestimate its will to protect its sovereignty.

Chinese soldiers in a base close to the university were seen on Sunday monitoring developments at the university with binoculars, some dressed in riot gear.

Chinese troops in shorts and T-shirts, some carrying red plastic buckets or brooms, emerged from their barracks on Saturday in a rare public appearance to help clean up debris.

The Hong Kong government invoked a colonial-era emergency law in October banning faced masks commonly used by protesters. The High Court ruled on Monday the ban was unconstitutional and police said they would suspend all such prosecutions.

By James Pomfret and David Lague