The siege of a Hong Kong university extended into a second day following a night of fire and ferocious clashes between riot police and protesters holed up on the campus.
Officers from the special tactical contingent, known as the “raptors”, attempted to storm the university in the early hours of Monday morning but were beaten back by volleys of petrol bombs that set the main entrance to Hong Kong Polytechnic University ablaze.
On Sunday evening, protesters defending a bridge near the campus set an armoured police vehicle on fire and repelled repeated police assaults with the help of petrol bombs fired off the roof of the university using large homemade catapults. Earlier in the day, a police officer was shot in the leg with an arrow fired from a demonstrator’s bow.
The siege of PolyU comes after the most violent week in the city’s months-long political crisis. At least one person was shot by police, another was set on fire, a 70-year-old man died after he was hit in the head by a flying brick and the police warned the city was on “the brink of total collapse”.
Much of the conflict in recent days has been focused around different universities and the violence prompted most to end classes for the rest of the semester. The clashes also triggered an exodus of mainland Chinese and some international students.
The PolyU campus in Kowloon sits almost directly above the main cross-harbour tunnel leading to Hong Kong Island and the city’s financial district. Demonstrators have blocked the tunnel since last week.
The university is also just metres away from the historic Gun Club Hill barracks, former home to squadrons of the British Army’s legendary Gurkhas but occupied since 1997 by People’s Liberation Army troops from mainland China.
On Sunday, PLA officers holding rifles fixed with bayonets watched from behind high fences as police battled the protesters with water cannon, tear gas, rubber bullets and armoured trucks.
Several Hong Kong police officers were photographed on Sunday carrying AR-15 assault rifles and a police spokesman said officers were prepared to fire live rounds. In one incident, two officers fired their service revolvers into the air after they were cornered in an ambulance by a large angry crowd.
The rising violence and prospect of a harsher crackdown have battered Hong Kong’s economy, with retail sales and tourism collapsing in recent months. The Hong Kong government expects the city will fall into its first annual recession since the global financial crisis in 2009.
With all schools in the territory closed since last Thursday, transport paralysed and university campuses in flames, many wealthier residents and expatriates are considering leaving Hong Kong, at least temporarily. Schools will remain shut tomorrow.
Shortly after the attempted police raid on Monday morning, Teng Jinguang, PolyU president, released a video saying he had secured a promise from the police to “temporarily suspend” the use of force and provide safe passage to police stations so their cases could be “fairly processed”.
However, several groups of demonstrators attempting to leave were tear gassed by police, who had sealed off the campus by Monday morning and were refusing to allow anyone — including reporters — in or out of the area.
Throughout Sunday night and Monday morning, groups of black-clad protesters in different districts across Kowloon blocked streets and threw petrol bombs at police in an attempt to draw their attention away from PolyU campus.
Those inside the besieged campus said there were hundreds of people, including many injured demonstrators, who were unable to leave or access necessary medical care.
“Everyone is exhausted and [when] someone wants to leave, they can’t. There are even kids that are 11, 12 years old,” said a social worker trapped in the campus late Sunday in a post on the Facebook page of the Hong Kong Social Workers General Union. “We want to protect everyone that is still inside at the moment. We want to survive.”
By early afternoon Hong Kong’s benchmark stock index was up 1 per cent, despite the political upheaval. Brokers said the Hang Seng index was buoyed by hopes of progress in trade negotiations between the US and China.
Separately, Hong Kong’s high court ruled on Monday that a controversial anti-mask law introduced by the government to curb the protests was unconstitutional, saying the restrictions it imposed on fundamental rights went “further than is reasonably necessary”.