Inside Hong Kong’s besieged Polytechnic University, a few dozen holdouts plot their next move
The campus of Hong Kong Polytechnic University looks like a bomb blast site covered in graffitied pro-democracy slogans.
Nearly every inch of ground is blanketed in broken glass, strewn bricks, water bottles, umbrellas, gloves, nails, clothing and chairs. Chemical smells and industrial odors hang in the air.
A crudely-built brick wall serving as a line of defense against police now stands half toppled. There are smashed windows in nearly every building, and water from flooded upper floors drips to a ground-floor library.
Rooms filled with medical supplies, helmets and gas masks hint at the hundreds of demonstrators that were on campus just a few days ago. The handful of demonstrators visible in the open dart from one area to another, all looking particularly busy and uninterested in talking to journalists.
In nearly six months of civil unrest in Hong Kong, what started partly as a bid to disrupt traffic at an adjacent tunnel that links Kowloon to Hong Kong Island descended into one of the fiercest battles between protesters and police.
The dozens of demonstrators thought to be left are increasingly hard to find — melting away into the labyrinth of hallways, classrooms and labs tucked into the dense 23-acre campus that has morphed into a fortress — six days after a police siege of the university.
Ken Woo, acting president of the student union, now presides over what feels like a ghost town. He has taken it upon himself to search for and counsel any remaining protesters on the campus.
“Many are hiding, more than you can imagine,” said Woo, 22, who suspects some have found refuge in the air-conditioning ducts. “The atmosphere is very dangerous and very weird.”
There was the one student who kept waving a knife and slashing furniture. Another had a habit of swallowing dozens of acetaminophen pills a day. At night, the eerie sounds of distant footsteps and banging prevent Woo from ever getting more than a few hours’ sleep.
“I think there are undercover police coming at night,” said Woo, a fourth-year civil engineering major.
Paranoia is rampant. Some remaining protesters accuse Woo, who has been talking to lawyers, journalists and school officials visiting Polytechnic, of being a government mole and refuse to meet with him, he said. Almost everyone he does speak to is hatching a plan to escape.
Woo’s main message to the outside world is this: There is a humanitarian crisis unfolding at his university.
He estimates there could be between 60 and 100 demonstrators left, all living in squalid conditions that could soon become a vector for disease. Toilets are getting filthier by the day. Dining areas are beginning to take on the rancid smell of rotting food.
“We’ve always had rats at Poly, but now there are so many more,” Woo said.
The Hong Kong government and police force say the solution is simple: Surrender peacefully to authorities and face charges of rioting, a crime that’s punishable by up to 10 years in prison.
Hundreds fled or turned themselves in during the last week, including 300 minors who had to register with police in lieu of arrest.
Police still guard the school’s perimeter, but show no outward signs of preparing a new assault, appearing content to wait until the remaining die-hards run out of food.
On Thursday night, a policeman on a loudspeaker taunted the protesters about their diminishing food supplies, saying they had to subsist on sliced bread for “elderly rubbish pickers” while police could get off work and enjoy “hot pot and cold beer.”
The defense of Polytechnic has been a costly campaign for Hong Kong’s protest movement that’s left many exhausted and searching for new ideas, including driving efforts underground to mimic guerrilla warfare.
Head-to-head confrontation is increasingly futile.
Thousands of demonstrators appeared outside the school Monday night to try and help free those inside the campus cut off by a police cordon the night before.
Barricaded protesters, many of whom were not Polytechnic students, lobbed Molotov cocktails at an armored police truck and used bows to shoot arrows, one of which penetrated an officer’s leg.
Riot police responded with an unprecedented show of force by firing 1,458 rounds of tear gas, 1,391 rubber bullets, 325 bean bag rounds and 265 sponge grenades. They also threatened to use live ammunition, briefly sparking fears of another Tiananmen massacre.
“We didn’t expect the police to surround us so quickly,” said one 23-year-old protester who fled the campus Tuesday and declined to provide her name for fear of being arrested. “We should have been more prepared. It was total chaos.”
Another escaped protester described scenes of panic Monday after the police assault. Protesters were preparing wills, sobbing and embracing one another and saying, “See you in 10 years,” a reference to the rioting penalty.
“People were hit with projectiles everywhere,” said the second protester, also 23, a recent Polytechnic graduate who also declined to disclose his name for fear of arrest. “I saw blood, bruises, people unable to walk. They were stepping over each other and falling on the glass from the broken Molotov cocktails and bleeding.”
He said he was filled with regret about the past week. It was noble for students to defend their campus from police. But barricading inside a building violated one of the protest movement’s key principles: be adaptable, or “be like water.”
“I feel so bad for my brothers and sisters still inside” Polytechnic, he said. “I have to respect their choice, but I don’t think they should stay.”
Some remaining protesters said it wasn’t by choice they were still there. They either feared falling into the hands of police and being beaten or hadn’t found a way to break out. Open manhole covers on campus showed the lengths some were willing to go in order to flee. Rumors spread that some protesters in the sewers were turned away by snakes.
“I’ve been here four or five days, I’ve lost track of time,” said Ken, a masked 20-year-old in a daze who was watching Japanese anime cartoons on a TV screen in the campus food court. “I want to go, but I can’t.”
Woo said he assumed the position of acting student union president by chance. The organization’s leader stepped down four months ago, leaving the job to him.
“I’m not even supposed to be here,” Woo said.
It’s a job he takes seriously, which is why he feels responsible for those remaining in Polytechnic — helping them locate volunteer lawyers on site or ensuring they have enough food and water. He’s prepared to stay for days, but admits it may only be a matter of time before he also attempts to leave. Though Woo knows he faces arrest, he denies he’s done anything that could be construed as rioting. His job is to be in the background, not on the front line protesting, he said.
On a recent night, after making the rounds looking for holdouts, he approached a police checkpoint on an adjacent road. Separated by a fence, he tried to start small talk by asking an officer if he’d had his dinner yet. Woo hoped to connect with the policeman and glean what their strategy was.
“He tried to persuade me to surrender,” Woo said. “He then asked if he needed to throw food over to my cockroach friends.
“I still don’t see any humanity in them.”
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