Hong Kong election looms as new flashpoint amid escalating protest violence

Anti-government protesters take cover during a stand-off with riot police at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, on Nov 12, 2019. PHOTO: REUTERS

HONG KONG (WASHINGTON POST) - A university campus turned into a combat zone, with police firing tear gas and pro-democracy protesters hurling bricks and firebombs on Tuesday (Nov 12) amid a dramatic surge of violence across Hong Kong that could threaten local elections later this month.

The clashes at the Chinese University of Hong Kong - among the fiercest since demonstrations began in June - came amid a marathon string of street marches and confrontations that have paralysed parts of the former British colony.

The violence escalated this week after police shot and wounded a 21-year-old protester on Monday.

The same day, protesters doused a 57-year-old man with liquid and set him on fire. Both victims remained in the hospital on Tuesday.

The authorities in Hong Kong and Beijing now must decide whether to go ahead with local elections on Nov 24. If the vote is not held, many protesters would view it as another sign of the power they wield from the streets.

More questions about the vote were raised on Tuesday. The People's Daily, the Communist Party's mouthpiece, published a commentary on its social media accounts that backed Hong Kong's crackdown on demonstrators and said the vote should proceed only if calm is restored in the semi-autonomous Chinese territory.

"Only by supporting the police force in decisively putting down the riots can (Hong Kong) return to peace and hold fair elections, to help Hong Kong start again," it said.

Facing escalating threats, it said, Hong Kong's government is "entitled to regulate the street violence instigated by opposition parties and extremist forces".

At the Chinese University, a stretch of campus became a no man's land.

Black-clad demonstrators, behind umbrellas and table tops, hurled bricks and gasoline bombs. Police fired tear gas and rubber bullets from across a narrow bridge, kicking up stinging pink and orange clouds.

At one point, police offered to stop the tear gas if students pulled back. Later, however, they deployed a water cannon to the university to force protesters to disperse. Students remained guarding the university through the night, even when police had left.

"We have already suffered through hundreds of tear gas and bullets. If we leave, they will arrest us all," a masked protester said.

A university fitness room was converted into a makeshift first aid centre to manage injuries. According to the Hospital Authority, 51 people were injured between 7.30am and midnight on Tuesday, the youngest of whom was a baby.

Clashes flared in other spots around Hong Kong, including the City University and central business districts during midday. Near the City University, protesters rampaged through a shopping mall and set a Christmas tree ablaze.

"Our society has been pushed to the brink of a total breakdown," Senior Police Superintendent Kong Wing Cheung told reporters. He added that almost 300 people had been arrested on Monday, 60 per cent of them students.

Hong Kong's universities are home to thousands of international students, a majority of whom come from mainland China.

On Tuesday, the Chinese Students & Scholars Association at City University posted on the Chinese messaging app WeChat that they could provide transportation for students hoping to return to Shenzhen, the Chinese city that borders Hong Kong. Several Chinese students interviewed by The Washington Post were planing to fly back home, or were in the process of making travel plans.

"I was so scared when I came across the protesters, all in black," said a mainland Chinese student who was caught in the clashes at Hong Kong's Chinese University, giving only her last name, Yang. "The sound of bricks being thrown still echoes in my ears."

Yang, 23, has now returned to Shenzhen, and said she will return to Hong Kong only once the situation is "normal."

The district elections would allow a polarised city to vote in Hong Kong's only relatively free electoral exercise.

District councillors' responsibilities are largely local, but their seats make up a sizable portion of the committee that selects Hong Kong's chief executive, with the other half handpicked by the Chinese government. The pro-democracy camp hopes to capitalise on public anger at the city's Beijing-backed administration, which has deployed increasing force against protesters demanding full democracy and police accountability.

Hong Kong's leader, Mrs Carrie Lam, whose approval rating has plummeted to a record low of about 20 per cent, has received the support of Chinese leader Xi Jinping. But with that backing comes an expectation that she will use necessary means to restore order to Hong Kong, now in its sixth month of demonstrations.

Since Mrs Lam invoked emergency powers to ban face masks in public assemblies - which protesters use to protect themselves from surveillance and tear gas - some lawmakers worry that the government could use the same powers to postpone the election, citing political turmoil, said Mr Dennis Kwok Wing Hang, a lawmaker representing Hong Kong's legal sector.

Fears of cancellation are not unfounded. In recent weeks, the authorities have arrested several pro-democracy lawmakers and candidates running for district council seats. Democracy activist Joshua Wong was barred from running.

Violence against councillors has increased: Pro-establishment figure Junius Ho was stabbed while campaigning, and a pro-democracy district councillor had his ear bitten off during a tussle involving a knife-wielding assailant. Mr Jimmy Sham, an organiser of pro-democracy marches and candidate in the election, was attacked by a gang wielding hammers.

Asked on Tuesday whether she would consider postponing the vote, Mrs Lam told reporters that the government "hopes that the elections can continue as planned".

In recent days, Hong Kong's Electoral Affairs Commission called on the public to "stop all threats and violence to support the holding of elections in a peaceful and orderly manner".

Although pro-Beijing politicians are likely to face electoral losses, postponing this month's vote would only make this worse, said Professor Ma Ngok, a professor of Hong Kong politics at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

"Voters would see this as manipulation and may come out in bigger numbers," he said, adding that there is no legal provision to cancel elections, only to postpone them for a short period.

Although moderates in the pro-Beijing camp consider the election a way to vent public anger peacefully and want it to proceed, Prof Ma sees a power struggle in which hardliners want emergency powers used to cancel the election entirely and thus maintain their grip on power.

But declaring a state of emergency to do so would "send a major shock through the international community" that would irreparably damage Hong Kong's reputation, he said.

A recent survey by the Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute found that 70 per cent of respondents opposed delaying the election.

"It's more important than ever to have this election," said a 20-year-old engineering student manning a protest barricade at the University of Hong Kong. He spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution.

If the election is not held, he said, "the government will be cutting off yet another avenue of political reform and will push people to take more radical action".

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