Fear of arrest keeps last protesters holed up on campus

Fear of arrest, police brutality and the prospect of long prison sentences for ‘rioting’ have kept the last few dozen remaining protesters holed up in the besieged buildings of the Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU) after the raging battles in the past week.

Many left the buildings after the biggest battles on Tuesday, some of them in scenes of daring escape, as well as hundreds brought out by mediators and paramedical volunteers. But a few dozen still remained on the campus on Friday after days of siege that began on 17 November, despite low supplies of food and water.

Michael Cheuk, regional police commander of Kowloon West, the area in which PolyU is situated, said anyone over the age of 18 who walked out of the campus would be arrested for rioting. Many high school teenagers under the age of 18 who were escorted out of the PolyU campus will have their names taken down and could be called up and could be investigated and charged later, police said.

Police have arrested more than 5,000 protesters in almost six months of protests – around 1,000 of them during the PolyU siege, including those who were not on the campus. Large numbers of trials are under way. On Wednesday alone, some 242 were charged with rioting. If convicted, the riot charge can carry a sentence of up to 10 years.

The hearings are being held at six courts well into the night with batches of protesters heard at the same time. So far none of them were hearings of those who took part in the PolyU siege but of others who staged disturbances and barricaded streets to distract police in the areas surrounding the university in a bid to prevent them attacking PolyU with full force.

These numbers compare with 235 protesters charged with rioting between June, when the riots began, and 17 November.

Pro-democracy legislator Au Nok-hin said voluntarily leaving the campus “does not amount to admitting they committed the offence of rioting”, and this was the same for those who continue to stay on campus.

The real escape

The police determination to catch and arrest all those coming out of PolyU, including medical and social workers, has spooked many in Hong Kong.

For Hong Kong people a prison sentence would have major repercussions on a much bigger escape – emigration or study abroad eventually leading to immigration status with post-study work visas. For most countries this requires a clean police record.

Already there is widespread talk of leaving Hong Kong, with parents of teenage children particularly saying they would prefer for them to study abroad rather than see them caught up in more protests.

Some high-profile student leaders escaped abroad before the police began large-scale arrests. They include Davin Wong, who was acting president of the Hong Kong University Students’ Union when he announced in September that he would leave Hong Kong after being attacked by masked thugs in August.

Brian Leung, the only protester who allowed himself to be filmed unmasked as one of those who broke into the Hong Kong legislature building on 1 July and defaced symbols of Chinese rule, also quietly returned to the University of Washington in the United States where he is continuing his doctoral studies.

“The top student leaders of the Umbrella Movement (2014-15) are able to go abroad to study, but this protest movement is leaderless, so the government wants all protesters to be arrested. Our children will all be trapped here while our freedoms are eroded even further,” said one mother standing outside PolyU on Tuesday. She said both her son, 16, and daughter, 18, were inside. “They are not violent protesters, they just went to help with supplies,” she said.

Some researchers, lecturers and professors at Hong Kong universities have been applying for positions at institutions in Taiwan. Universities in Taiwan say there has been a “noticeable increase” in the number of applications for positions received this month from lecturers, researchers and professors based in Hong Kong.

There is fear of further erosions of freedoms. Some point to anger from Beijing after a Hong Kong court this week overturned a controversial ban on wearing masks brought in by emergency decree by Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam on 4 October in a bid to halt the protests.

The mask ban was widely flouted. But Beijing’s strong reaction to the court’s decision that it was ‘unconstitutional’ under Hong Kong’s mini-constitution known as the Basic Law was widely seen as an attack on Hong Kong’s courts and rule of law.

Also causing fear is the recently released testimony of former British consular official Simon Cheng, who was detained in Shenzhen in China in August for more than 15 days. In a recent statement about his detention, he said he believed a number of Hong Kong protesters were being held in the same mainland prison where he was held and tortured. Beijing has denied that torture took place.

“The [Chinese] secret police clearly state that batches after batches of Hong Kong protesters had been caught, delivered and detained in mainland China,” Cheng said in his account of his detention, interrogation and torture, released on Facebook this week.

He added that Chinese secret police threatened they could “abduct me back to mainland China [from] Hong Kong any time”, another widespread fear of Hong Kong people.

US bill hope

But the passing of the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act by both the United States House of Representatives and the US Senate this week has provided some hope. It is expected to be signed into law by US President Donald Trump, despite China demanding that he veto the bill.

Included in the bill is a provision that visa applicants arrested or convicted for their roles in protests would not be denied a US visa, as is currently the case.

It will also place Hong Kong government officials, police officers and their family members under scrutiny in a measure designed to deter them from acting with impunity.

The bill also calls for sanctions against any individuals or entities deemed to have violated freedoms guaranteed under Hong Kong’s Basic Law.

“It partly means the US Consulate will consider granting visa(s) to students who will be convicted in protests. We have seen police indiscriminately arresting protesters,” said Joshua Wong of Hong Kong’s Demosisto Party, who served prison terms for his role in the 2014-15 Occupy Central protests.

Hong Kong legislator Dennis Kwok, who represents the legal profession, said: “Students should be given a way out as well as options, even if they are convicted in Hong Kong due to the protests.”

China has angrily denounced the bill, which is expected to be signed into law by President Trump, as Washington “interference in Hong Kong’s internal affairs”.

University World News Asia Editor Yojana Sharma contributed to this article.