HONG KONG - With raging protests in Hong Kong spreading to universities, the heads of nine universities have urged both sides of the political divide to end the violence that has turned campuses into warzones, while the government warned its 180,000 employees of disciplinary action if they are arrested for unlawful activities.
A five-day standoff between protesters and police at Chinese University of Hong Kong ended on Friday as the activists evacuated their makeshift fortress and left the campus.
On Saturday (Nov 16) morning workers had cleared the debris from Tolo Highway beneath the bridge blockaded by protesters. The demonstrators appeared to have abandoned the campus, according to a university spokesman, Bloomberg reported.
In a rare joint statement issued on Friday night, the nine chiefs of universities, including Professor Rocky Tuan of the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK), where some of the fiercest battles erupted this week, noted that several campuses are still under protesters' control and staff and students have left campuses for fear of safety.
They said no political viewpoint justifies damaging property, physical threats or the use of violence.
"It is regrettable that societal disagreement has led to university campuses becoming major political battlefields, and that the government response has so far not been effective.
"However, any demand that universities can simply fix the problem is disconnected from reality: these complicated and challenging situations neither originate from the universities, nor can they be resolved through university disciplinary processes," the statement said.
The widespread disagreement is a political issue to be resolved by the government, the statement added.
The government on Friday warned that any civil servant arrested on suspicion of taking part in an unlawful public activity will be suspended immediately, even before conviction. The individual will also face disciplinary action.
In a letter addressed to all government staff, Civil Service Secretary Joshua Law said the government is adopting a zero-tolerance approach towards law-breaking.
He reminded them to comply with a face-mask ban imposed in October.
"It would be difficult for the community to accept if a civil servant arrested for participating in illegal activities could still return to work as normal and continue to exercise the powers and functions of his office.
"In this regard, we would interdict the officer in the public interest when inquiry against him is being undertaken", Mr Law wrote.
Recent arrests of a handful of government employees have created doubts on the unity of the civil service in handling the current crisis, he added.
In another whammy, the government has not only lowered its estimate for economic growth this year but also estimated the first annual contraction since the global financial crisis a decade ago.
It said on Friday that full-year gross domestic product (GDP) will contract 1.3 per cent in 2019 from the previous year. This would come on the back of slower growth in China as well as China's trade war with the United States.
Hong Kong has been roiled in unrest for more than five months, of which some of the fiercest battles between protesters and police took place earlier this week as the fight shifted to campuses.
Meanwhile, amid uncertainties over whether the Nov 24 district councils elections will be held, Mr Justice Barnabas Fung Wah, chairman of the Electoral Affairs Commission, issued a statement on Saturday, saying that the commission is working hard "to ensure that the polls will be carried out smoothly".