HONG KONG (BLOOMBERG) - Hong Kong’s leader Carrie Lam has called for a peaceful resolution to a university siege that has transfixed the city and raised fears of a crackdown on scores of protesters who remain in a campus surrounded by police.
Mrs Lam said she had instructed police to try and resolve the situation at Hong Kong Polytechnic University peacefully and to not immediately arrest minors under the age of 18 who remain there.
About 100 people remain in the university after about 600 protesters escaped or were evacuated overnight, including several hundred who were under 18 years old.
The South China Morning Post reported that another 50 protesters left around the time she spoke, with some suffering from hypothermia and leg injuries.
“We’re extremely worried about the dangerous situation in the campus,” Mrs Lam said in a briefing on Tuesday morning (Nov 19). She added a peaceful resolution “can only be achieved with the full cooperation of the protesters, including, of course, the rioters. They have to stop violence, give up their weapons, and come out peacefully and take the instructions from police.”
Running battles between police and protesters on Monday featured raging fires, tear gas and flaming vehicles. By the evening tens of thousands of demonstrators marched towards the university to aid those stuck in the campus, leading to more clashes throughout the night.
Some managed to leave from the university in Kowloon by climbing over walls, while police arrested dozens of others on Monday – sometimes tackling them to the ground or pounding them with batons.
The government on Monday had warned those inside to surrender peacefully and urged others to stay away from the site as protesters pleaded for reinforcements to battle police. Medical personnel were allowed in to tend to the wounded, while university officials called for a negotiation and parents held signs saying “Save the Kids.”
Police have described Polytechnic University as "a weapon factory" and "a refuge for extremely violent rioters" and that protesters have stolen toxic and dangerous chemicals from the university laboratory.
The chaos again made Hong Kong look in television images more like a war zone than a financial hub. Although stocks finished the day higher after losing 5.6 per cent last week, signs of disarray were evident.
The government ordered schools to remain shut for a sixth day, though the Education Bureau said in a statement on Tuesday classes will resume on Wednesday for primary schools, secondary schools and some special needs schools.
A major tunnel linking Kowloon with Hong Kong Island remained closed and officials warned that they may need to scrap District Council elections scheduled for Sunday.
“If the police want to go in and smash the movement, this is their opportunity,” said Professor David Zweig, director of Centre on China’s Transnational Relations and professor emeritus at The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.
“On the other hand, it could also be an opportunity to tone things down and start a dialogue with university officials that could lead to a broader discussion.”
“It can’t go on in this form forever,” Prof Zweig said. “The world now sees Hong Kong as a mess.”
US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo said the US is “gravely concerned” about rising violence in Hong Kong and called on Mrs Lam to allow an independent probe of protest incidents – one of the key demands of protesters. US Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell urged President Donald Trump to speak out on behalf of the demonstrators.
“The world should hear from him directly that the United States stands with these brave women and men,” Mr McConnell said on Monday afternoon on the Senate floor, where lawmakers are considering a Bill supporting the demonstrators that would impose penalties on Beijing for infringing on the city’s autonomy.
Police surrounded the university over the weekend after students fortified the campus with makeshift barricades and scattered debris in front of the nearby cross-harbour tunnel that connects the peninsula with Hong Kong Island.
Protesters fired arrows from behind the barricades, injuring one officer, and threw scores of petrol bombs at officers who tried to sweep in. They also set police vehicles ablaze as officers warned protesters that they would use live rounds. Police kept up pressure, surrounding the campus, blocking exits and making dozens of arrests.
“We have to take the risk,” said one 26-year-old protester who said his surname was Lee and took part in the protests.. “We have no alternative.”
Some of the most prominent members of the protest movement warned that the siege could end with widespread bloodshed.
“Is the world going to witness bloody crackdown without stopping ruthless regime?” said Mr Joshua Wong, who led the 2014 Occupy protests and has been one of the most visible demonstrators in what is now a leaderless movement.
Over the weekend, Chinese troops exited their barracks in the former colony to help clear roadblocks, raising fears among the opposition that Beijing might directly intervene. On Tuesday, Mrs Lam downplayed the significance of People’s Liberation Army troops appearing on the streets of Hong Kong for the first time during the ongoing unrest.
“It is not uncommon from time to time for the garrison to undertake voluntary and charitable activities in Hong Kong,” she said. “I would suggest that we do not over-interpret this particular act of voluntary involvement.”
The Communist Party’s flagship People’s Daily newspaper said there was no room for compromise, and the editor-in-chief of the Global Times newspaper called for police to use live rounds if attacked.
China further signalled it would take a hard line when a spokesman for the top office overseeing Hong Kong said a court ruling on Monday that declared a mask ban unconstitutional challenged the authority of Beijing’s rule. The decision by the High Court marked a setback for Mrs Lam and raised questions about the limits of colonial-era emergency powers that she invoked for the first time in more than a half century to pass the measure.
Officials in her administration pleaded on Monday with protesters to leave, saying the Bill that sparked the protests allowing extraditions to China had been completely withdrawn. Demonstrators are still demanding an independent inquiry into police abuses and the right to nominate and elect their own leaders.
“Realistically, we must put an end to violence,” said Mr Matthew Cheung, Mrs Lam’s deputy. “Unless you’ve got a peaceful environment, law and order restored to law-abiding Hong Kong, you won’t have the environment, the ambiance to conduct dialogue.”
The chaotic beginning to the work week on Monday followed a previous week of unprecedented violence, with five straight days of chaos beginning with the shooting of a protester last Monday.
The worsening violence prompted many major universities to cancel the entire semester and led to classes being cancelled at Hong Kong’s pricey private schools. Countless major events – including a major music festival and a Goldman Sachs anniversary event – have been cancelled or postponed.
“Some Hong Kong people have really lost patience with the radical protesters,” said Ms Emily Lau, a veteran politician and former chairman of the opposition Democratic Party, on Bloomberg Television. “But there are others who are very sympathetic, who will take to the streets in black to continue to support them. So it is a city that is split asunder.”
Even with growing disenchantment about the increased violence, many white-collar professionals have flooded into the city’s financial district to voice support for the students.
“We don’t really care about politics,” said one 40-year-old woman surnamed Cheung, who wore a blazer and an Apple watch, at a lunch time protest on Friday as crowds chanted “Fight for freedom! Stand with Hong Kong!”
“But right now, they just want to show the world, the Hong Kong government, that we do care – that we do want to fight for it, even though we’re not in the front lines, holding the umbrellas, fighting through tear gas.”
As the violence worsens between protesters and police, the government has insisted it will not yield to any further political demands. At the same time, there is a growing sense that protester tactics are beginning to lead to fiercer confrontations, particularly as they dig in to hold territory like the PolyU campus.
“This is a political problem requiring a political solution,” said Mr Steve Vickers, a former head of the Royal Hong Kong Police Criminal Intelligence Bureau who is now chief executive officer of Steve Vickers and Associates, a political and corporate risk consultancy.
“But in the end,” he added, “when the violence gets to a point where people are throwing hundreds of petrol bombs, and bows and arrows are wounding people, there comes a point when you can’t let that go on.”
With contribution from The Straits Times