Campus siege ends – But are universities being punished?

The siege at Hong Kong Polytechnic University or PolyU ended on Thursday after almost two weeks, as police finally entered the all-but-deserted campus on 28 November. Police surrounded the sprawling campus of the university known for excellent design and engineering schools from 17 November, amid pitched battles with protesters and scenes that some humanitarian workers with experience in conflict regions described as a ‘war zone’.

Around 100 police entered the devastated campus, some of them in plainclothes, saying they wanted to remove dangerous materials and collect evidence, after repeated warnings by the university’s leadership – including PolyU President Teng Jin-guang and governing council Chair Lam Tai-Fai – that police should not enter until all students had been brought out.

While university staff also entered the wrecked campus on Thursday, with fire officers, humanitarian workers and others, they were at pains to say they were not part of the police operation – university leadership support for police is a sensitive topic for students.

PolyU Vice-President Ben Young said the university had only requested that the relevant authorities handle dangerous items on the campus. But police were seen in video footage brushing petrol bomb bottles for fingerprints.

Some staff and community leaders feared that even a low-level confrontation between police and protesters hiding on campus – believed to number around 20 – could reignite anger on other university campuses.

However, the campus operation was under police control with police saying they wanted to “return the campus to the university” as soon as they finished the clearance and investigative work. Petrol bombs, inflammable liquids as well as bows and arrows used as weapons were seized.

Blamed for protests

But the university leadership at PolyU said they were being unfairly punished by the Hong Kong government after the administration withdrew two building proposals for the university. The government has privately blamed the leadership of PolyU and other universities for failing to curb student violence.

PolyU governing council chairman Lam said the Hong Kong government was making the university a scapegoat for unrest after the government decision this week to cancel a planned funding request for the institution, worth HK$1.4 billion (US$179 million) for new teaching facilities and a health care centre, submitted before the protests.

Lam told Hong Kong radio the authorities were blaming universities for months of unrest. He said only a small number of people involved in the PolyU siege were even students there. More than 1,100 – including 300 secondary school students – have been arrested or had their information collected by police in connection with the PolyU siege.

Government bids for funding totalling HK$250 million (US$32 million) for projects at the Chinese University of Hong Kong or CUHK – scene of violent classes on 12-13 November – and Hong Kong University or HKU, have also been dropped this week, according to legislators.

Pro-Beijing legislators reportedly wanted assurances that universities would strengthen regulations on campus to curb student “excesses”.

Hong Kong Chief Secretary for Administration Matthew Cheung Kin-chung said the funding item had not been withdrawn but reshuffled. “It is not a punishment,” he said.

Sources said the government withdrew the funding proposals so that it would not appear that universities were being “rewarded out of public funds” at a time when they are in the frontline of protests.

Hong Kong legislator Eddie Chu referred to the funding cancellations in a tweet on Thursday. “The Hong Kong government starts its retaliation against our universities,” he tweeted, adding: “Pro-Beijing legislators said they fear new buildings will be used for future protests.”

Transport links disrupted

At CUHK a major battle was fought over a bridge to campus that overlooks the main highway and railway between Hong Kong and the Chinese border, with traffic brought to a halt for at least two days during the battles.

Protesters barricading inside PolyU petrol bombed the toll plaza for a tunnel across the harbour, a major artery to the Chinese border, damaging an administrative building and forcing the major thoroughfare to be closed for two weeks. It reopened on Wednesday.

PolyU is near a major rail junction for trains to China, which also had to be closed during the height of the battles.

The targeting of these major transport links to China particularly incensed pro-Beijing legislators, sources said.

Campus evacuation

Hundreds of protesters had occupied PolyU and several other universities on 11 November, part of a plan to call a general strike in Hong Kong.

The protests turned violent after a major battle at CUHK on 12-13 November that was sparked by the death of a student of Hong Kong University of Science and Technology on 8 November. Chow Tsz-lok, 22, fell from a carpark while allegedly being chased by police.

Almost 2,000 students, protesters and other supporters were involved in extremely violent clashes with police at PolyU, particularly on 18 November. Thousands of rounds of tear gas and rubber bullets were fired by police while students retaliated with petrol bombs, fire-tipped arrows and bricks during the clashes at CUHK and PolyU.

The battles ended two days later. But with police insisting that they would arrest anyone exiting the campus, many refused to leave and some tried to escape through sewers and by rappelling down from a bridge to the campus.

Around 1,100 left the campus voluntarily or accompanied by humanitarian teams early in the week. The university urged the government “to immediately adopt a peaceful and humanitarian approach in order to help persuade and arrange for those remaining to leave the campus”.

Early in the week, the university management had kept police at bay outside the campus, negotiating a two-day period in which police would not enter the campus, while university leaders, staff and humanitarian groups searched for protesters holed up on campus, fearful of arrest.

PolyU said in a statement on Tuesday that it had seven search teams of more than 50 people including teachers, counsellors, healthcare professionals, social workers and security staff searching for people hiding on campus. It said most buildings including the library and car parks had been searched, bringing out a woman “who appeared physically weak and emotionally unstable”.

Police did not remove their cordon around the university despite several requests from the administration for them to retreat. But PolyU chair Lam said on Wednesday that once police lifted their cordon around the campus the remaining protesters “will leave peacefully of their own accord”.

Democratic Party lawmaker James To said on Tuesday that the police had refused to retreat despite efforts by district councillors, the university leadership and other mediators. He described the number of officers stationed around PolyU as “disproportionate” and the standoff as “unnecessary”.

The university said: “The re-opening of our campus will still take some time. Only upon the release of the police cordon after their investigation, evidence collection and removal of hazardous substances can the university engage professional firms and consultants to conduct a thorough safety assessment of the buildings, facilities and environment of the campus, followed by clean-up, repair works and rebuilding.

“In light of the current unsafe environment, campus access continues to be strictly restricted to authorised persons only.”

Police said on Wednesday that there had been more than 5,800 arrests in Hong Kong since June, when peaceful protests began over a now-withdrawn extradition bill to transfer criminal suspects to mainland China. The protests have transformed into wider demands for democracy and investigations into police brutality.