For days, Hong Kong’s protesters fortified a university campus to keep police from getting in. Cornered by authorities, they are now trying to get out.
Officers repelled one attempt Monday morning with tear gas, driving a few hundred protesters back into the Hong Kong Polytechnic campus.
It’s a game that has played out repeatedly during the city’s months of anti-government unrest. The protesters want to avoid arrest. The police want to pick up as many as they can.
Hong Kong’s work week started with multiple protests that disrupted traffic, schools closed because of safety concerns and at least a temporary lull in the battles for control of the Polytechnic campus, as the emphasis shifted from battering the protesters with tear gas and water cannons to waiting for them to come out.
Protesters won on a legal front when the high court struck down a mask ban imposed by the government last month. The court said it did not consider anti-mask laws unconstitutional in general, but in this case, the law infringed on fundamental rights further than was reasonably necessary.
Many protesters wear masks to shield their identities from surveillance cameras that could be used to arrest and prosecute them. The ban has been widely ignored, and police have charged protesters with wearing masks.
The protests started peacefully in early June, sparked by proposed legislation that would have allowed criminal suspects to be extradited to the mainland. But by the time the bill was withdrawn, the protests had hardened and broadened into a resistance movement against the territory’s government and Beijing.
Activists see the extradition bill as an example of Hong Kong’s eroding autonomy under Beijing rule since the 1997 handover from colonial power Britain.
Anti-government protesters barricaded themselves inside Polytechnic last week. Police surrounded the area Sunday night and began moving in after issuing an ultimatum for people to leave the area. The crowd wore raincoats and carried umbrellas to shield themselves from police water cannons.
Riot officers broke in one entrance before dawn as fires raged inside and outside the school, but they didn’t appear to get very far. Fiery explosions could be seen as protesters responded with gasoline bombs. Police, who have warned that everyone in the area could be charged with rioting, reportedly made a handful of arrests.
At daybreak, protesters remained in control of most of the campus. In one outdoor area, some demonstrators made gasoline bombs while others dozed while wearing gas masks. Two walked about with bows and quivers of arrows, while many stared at their smartphones.
A lull settled on the area as the president of the university said in a video message that that police have agreed to suspend their use of force.
Jin-Guang Teng said police would allow protesters to leave and he would accompany them to the police station to ensure their cases would be processed fairly.
“I hope that you will accept the proposed temporary suspension of force and leave the campus in a peaceful manner,” he said.
It seemed unlikely the protesters would accept the offer given that they would all probably be arrested.
A few hundred streamed out of the campus about 8:15 a.m. in an apparent bid to escape, but they were driven back by police tear gas. Some wearing gas masks calmly picked up smoking tear gas canisters and dropped them into heavy-duty bags, but the protesters decided to retreat when they saw a phalanx of officers lined up across the road in the distance.
Police have set up a dragnet around the campus to try to arrest protesters, who typically try to melt away after blocking traffic or causing other disruption before police run in to grab as many as they can.
Other protesters blocked a major road not far from the Polytechnic campus in a bid to distract police and help those inside the campus escape.
They tossed paving stones onto stretches of Nathan Road as police chased them with tear gas.
Police issued a “wanted” notice for an injured woman after they say protesters stopped the ambulance, hurled rocks and bricks inside and removed her from police custody.
One police officer fired three shots from his weapon, but the police say the shots did not hit anyone.
The 20-year-old woman had been arrested at a Nathan Road intersection for participating in an unlawful assembly. A statement on the police Facebook page said anyone who aided her would face the charge of assisting an offender, carrying up to 10 years in prison.
The road closure added to transport woes during the morning commute, with several train stations still closed because of damage by protesters last week and a section of one line closed completely near Polytechnic.
The Education Bureau announced that classes from kindergarten to high school would be suspended again on Monday because of safety concerns. Classes have been canceled since Thursday, after the bureau came under criticism for not canceling them earlier.