Appeals for restraint as protest violence spreads to university campuses

Bishop Ha and others attempting to negotiate with the police as they seek to enter the Hong Kong Polytechnic University in the early hours of November 18. Photo: Justice and Peace Commission

HONG KONG (SE): At the time of going to press, some 100 die-hard protesters still held out at the battered Hong Kong Polytechnic University campus in Kowloon. Until the early hours of November 20, Auxiliary Bishop Joseph Ha Chi-shing, of the Catholic Diocese of Hong Kong, together with Reverend Yuen Tin-yau of the Hong Kong Christian Council, had tried to convince them to leave peacefully.

“They are tired. They are anxious and puzzled. They still haven’t decided their next steps,” the SCMP reported the bishop as saying.

“We tried to listen to them and let them know our thoughts … I hope they can understand that there is still a way out of this,” he said.

On November 19, Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, the city’s chief executive, said hoped the impasse, could be resolved peacefully, with the injured and those under 18-years-old treated humanely, the SCMP reported.

Polytechnic University along with the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) were both turned into war zones as violent protests in Hong Kong escalated. Protesters’ anger had been stoked by the death of Alex Chow Tsz-lok, a Hong Kong University of Science and Technology student who died on November 8 after a fatal fall at a protest area in Tseung Kwan O, as well as the shooting of an unarmed protester on November 11 in Sai Wan Ho. 

On different occasions, religious leaders, including the Colloquium of Six Religious Leaders of Hong Kong, Bishop Ha and Joseph Cardinal Zen Ze-kiun had urged police to exercise restraint when dealing with the protesters. The colloquium also called on protesters to stop using force.

The standoff at Polytechnic University began at around 10:30am on November 17 on the Cheong Wan Road flyover above the toll booths of the Cross Harbour Tunnel. Protesters hurled petrol bombs, bricks and fired arrows at the police who answered with volleys of tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannons. Many protesters were injured, while a police armoured vehicle was on fire and an officer injured by an arrow. 

The police locked down the university campus and prevented anyone from leaving without being checked after issuing warning at 9.00pm asking those still inside to surrender. A few hundred insisted on staying. Police also warned that they might use deadly weapons.

At around 2.00am on November 18, Bishop Ha, together with a group of lawmakers and teachers from the Polytechnic University, approached an entrance of the campus in an attempt to help negotiate a peaceful resolution. 

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According to the Apple Daily, they were turned away with some police officers warning them that they may be accused of participating in a riot. Strong lights were flashed at them and officers yelled at them to leave the scene at once, according to a report by RTHK.

Around an hour later, the bishop told the media that he had gone to three different entrances to talk to the police officers there but failed to gain entry. He expressed sadness and urged the police to humanely.

Joseph Cardinal Zen Ze-kiun appealed, via video posted on Facebook late on November 18, urging Carrie Lam and the government to respect human rights and allow medical personnel to go into the campus to care for the injured.

In a joint statement, The Colloquium of Six Religious urged the police to let the protesters and the injured leave the campus immediately and peacefully and make necessary legal arrangements. 

It also called on protesters to stop using force and urged both sides to mediate to matters peacefully, also offering to send representatives to assist if necessary (see page 3).

Late on the night of November 18, after negotiations by Jasper Tsang Yok-sing, the former president of the Legislative Council, and Eric Cheung Tat-ming, lecturer at the Department of Law of the University of Hong Kong, as well as secondary school principals, minors below the age of 18 were allowed to leave, though the police reserved the right to prosecute them later. 

As for the others, the negotiating team assured them that they would not be abused after arrest and that they would accompany them to the police station. Some left the campus together with dozens of other protesters.

According to the RTHK, more protesters walked out of the university campus around 10.00am on November 19 and surrendered. All required medical help and some needed wheelchairs.

Carrie Lam told the media that morning that around 100 were still on campus, while more than 600 had already left. Around 200 were below 18-years-old.

A few days earlier, at CUHK, there were intense confrontations between the police and demonstrators starting on the night of November 11 focused on the No. 2 Bridge from where protesters had been dropping petrol bombs and other dangerous objects onto the Tolo Highway and the MTR tracks, causing widespread traffic disruption. 

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On November 12, Bishop Ha made an urgent plea via online video message on the Facebook page of Diocesan Audio Visual Centre saying, “Dear all, I hope to convey an urgent message about the situation of Chinese University of Hong Kong. I urge the police to keep restraint. Dear students, please put your safety at the top priority. With all the citizens in Hong Kong, I feel worried and grieved for what is happening tonight. Life is the most precious gift. Nothing is more precious than life.” 

A group of Caritas social workers also denounced the use of excessive force by the police and went on strike on November 13. Reading their statement outside the Cathedral of Immaculate Conception, Caine Road, they called on Caritas to condemn the arrest of students at CUHK and urged the police to act with restraint. 

On the morning of November 15, protesters agreed open two lanes of the Tolo Highway and would open all the lanes as long as the government went ahead with the scheduled District Council elections on November 24, set up an independent commission of inquiry and release all protesters arrested. 

However, they withdrew that night, but not before after setting fire to an abandoned van on the No. 2 Bridge and blocking the Tolo Highway again as the government had not respond to their demands. 

By then, masked protesters had already occupied the campus of the Polytechnic University and the University of Hong Kong.

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