Hong Kong protests: Half of anti-government demonstrators at Polytechnic University surrender

South China Morning Post

Chief Executive Carrie Lam says police were told to let minors go home after having personal details recorded

South China Morning Post |

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Police made mass arrests on Monday but about 100 radicals were still barricaded inside Polytechnic University in Hung Hom on Tuesday morning.

Tired, cold and hungry, half of the few remaining protesters still holed up at Polytechnic University surrendered on Tuesday morning, and Hong Kong’s leader said she hoped the stand-off with police could be brought to a peaceful conclusion.

The two sides have been locked in an often-violent confrontation since Sunday, with sporadic clashes over the past 24 hours interspersed with those inside making increasingly desperate bids for freedom.

Hundreds were evacuated overnight from inside the university campus after politicians and education figures cut deals with police allowing them to leave. Around 10am, another 50 protesters emerged, with some suffering from hypothermia and leg injuries.

Paramedics treated them at a temporary station outside the campus before they were sent to five city hospitals. Another group of 50 were treated inside the campus in the Lee Shau Kei Building, and would be sent to hospital when ambulances could be arranged to take them.

A protester covered with a blanket, who did not disclose his identity, said he had endured sleepless nights and panic attacks during his time inside, brought on by not knowing when police would break in.

“We decided to come out due to hunger and cold, and many of us got hurt without enough medical supplies inside,” he said.

Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor said on Tuesday she had laid out two principles with police for handling the stand-off: that they were to try resolving the incident peacefully, and to treat injured or under-aged protesters in a humanitarian manner.

Speaking ahead of the weekly Executive Council meeting, Lam said about 600 protesters, including 200 aged under 18, had so far left the university since police surrounded the campus on Sunday.

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“We will use whatever means to continue to persuade and arrange for these remaining protesters to leave the campus as soon as possible,” she said. “So this whole operation can end in a peaceful manner and lay the basis for the subsequent work by the police to stop violence in Hong Kong.”

Describing the arrangement as exceptional, she said those under 18 had been allowed to go home after their personal details were recorded by police, with police reserving the right to arrest them later.

The calm of the late morning was a different story to the earlier hours of Tuesday, with some protesters standing guard at the entrance to the Hung Hom university from about 4am, after fiery clashes with riot police over the past 24 hours had turned the site into a battlefield.

Police surrounded the campus as protesters retreated inside buildings, including the gymnasium, and some slept next to unlit petrol bombs.

Hong Kong University legal scholar Eric Cheung (centre) and pro-government politician Jasper Tsang (right) were among those who negotiated the surrender of hundreds of protesters overnight.
Photo: Felix Wong/SCMP

The university’s president Professor Teng Jin-guang returned on Tuesday to inspect a campus littered with unused petrol bombs, bottles of highly flammable gas and discarded protective equipment.

More than 200 students or protesters aged below 18 had left the campus overnight. Some 100 adults also left and were arrested. Earlier, some escaped by abseiling off a footbridge to getaway vehicles below.

Overnight, into the early hours of Tuesday at PolyU, various figures from politics and education reached agreements with police to safely remove young protesters and volunteers inside the campus.

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They include PolyU council chairman Lam Tai-fai, pro-government politicians Michael Tien Puk-sun and Jasper Tsang, as well as education sector lawmaker Ip Kin-yuen. 

While minors were let go after police noted down their information, adults were immediately arrested.

Referring to the minors, legal scholar Eric Cheung Tat-ming said: “Police kept their promise, only noting down their HKID [Hong Kong Identity Card number], taking photos and letting them go.”

He said he is relieved that students were safe and bloodshed had been avoided.

A protester is detained during arrests on Monday at PolyU.
Photo: Sam Tsang/SCMP

Although police had repeatedly declared those on campus were involved in rioting, Cheung said mere presence within the PolyU campus did not amount to criminal conduct.

“Unless police have evidence, such as that someone has thrown a petrol bomb, I don’t think the authorities can prove a person is guilty beyond reasonable doubt,” he added.

On whether police could still charge those present of unlawful assembly, Cheung said those who were peaceful would be exempt.

Democratic Party lawmaker Ted Hui Chi-fung vowed to be the last to leave PolyU.

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“I guess the chance of them charging me for rioting is not small,” Hui said. “I expect them to arrest me first, but I’m convinced they wouldn’t be able to get a conviction.”

Hui said it was absurd that police should put the campus in complete lockdown and vow to arrest those inside for rioting.

“To arrest everyone on site [for rioting], this is clearly making wanton arrests,” he said.

The lawmaker said authorities might be trying to send a message to deter protesters from joining future actions.

Two black-clad protesters were among the dozens of diehards who remained on campus on Tuesday morning, despite not being PolyU students.

An 18-year-old said he was also involved in the bid to keep police out of Chinese University last week.

“I thought the PolyU situation would be resolved in two days but things didn’t go as expected,” he said, adding he knew the risks of being arrested.

Another in his 20s said he was pained by the arrests of protesters outside PolyU, who tried to rescue those trapped inside. He also said he had no plan surrender.

“Surrender, you go to jail, don’t surrender you still go to jail, so I would rather not,” he said.

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Young people, who had dressed out of the typical protest attire of black, were also heard arguing on the phone and ruling out any suggestion of surrendering.

Some, however, did leave as a group or alongside school principals who had arrived on scene with Ip.

An 18-year-old called Nathan was among the batch who left Polytechnic University campus on Tuesday morning, and he estimated there were around 200 people still inside.

“We have already tried multiple times to break through police’s defence, yesterday at 5am, then 10am, and another time,” he said. “Each time we lost 50 people and another 100 ... the chance of walking out free is fading away.”

A pedestrian takes a photograph of the protest aftermath in Nathan Road, one of the busiest shopping streets in Hong Kong.
Photo: K.Y. Cheng/SCMP

Mrs Chung, who said her 16-year-old daughter was still inside, said the teenager refused to listen to her, and did not believe the police would let her just walk out.

“No one can ask her to come out now. She wants to walk out freely, and does not believe the police at all,” she said. “She communicates with me but refuses to listen to me”.

The mother said her daughter at first only joined peaceful protests, but started to become more aggressive after clashes at Chinese University, and had been inside the campus since Sunday.

“Her sudden change of attitude was probably due to peer pressure, I really don’t know,” she said.

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Roads surrounding PolyU campus – such as Chatham Road, Cheong Wan Road and Hong Chong Road and Gascoigne Road – were still blocked, as of Tuesday morning.

The aftermath of intense overnight clashes between radicals and police in Kowloon left locals struggling with the effects of tear gas still hanging in the air.

A woman covers her nose and mouth as she deals with the effects of residual tear gas on Tuesday morning.
Photo: K.Y. Cheng/SCMP

Most vehicles could not pass through the junction of Nathan Road and Jordan Road in Jordan, with roadblocks still in place for the morning commute.

At least three construction vehicles started clearing bricks strewn across the road at about 7.30am.

Passers-by in Nathan Road wore masks and used their hands to cover their faces as they struggled with the after-effects of the chemical irritant fired by police to disperse protesters just hours earlier.