Hong Kong university siege winds down as hunt for protesters comes up empty

November 27, 2019 - 3:59 PM
Staff members of the Hong Kong Polytechnic University
Staff members of the Hong Kong Polytechnic University leave following a news conference where they announced they had not found any protesters left on campus, in Hong Kong, China November 27, 2019. (Reuters/Leah Millis)

HONG KONG — As the final searches for any pro-democracy protesters still hiding in Hong Kong‘s Polytechnic University came up empty on Wednesday, academic authorities prepared for the clean up following a nearly two-week siege of the campus by riot police.

Police still guarded the perimeter as a security team prepared to scour the maze of buildings for a second day. Polytechnic University Executive Vice President Dr. Miranda Lou said no-one had been found so far.

“We hope we can re-open the school soon to start our renovation work and reduce the impact on our students and our research projects,” said Lou.

The red-brick university on Kowloon peninsula was turned into a battleground in mid-November when protesters barricaded themselves inside and clashed with riot police in a hail of petrol bombs, water cannon and tear gas.

About 1,100 people were arrested last week, some while trying to escape.

The campus was the last of five that protesters had occupied to use as bases from which to disrupt the city, blocking the nearby Cross-Harbour Tunnel linking Kowloon to Hong Kong Island and other arteries.

The protesters had blocked the tunnel’s mouth, smashed toll booths, lit fires, and cemented bricks to the road, but it was reopened early on Wednesday, and Hong Kong television showed a steady flow of vehicles surging through.

Hong Kong authorities hope that a lull in clashes over the weekend during local elections, where pro-democracy candidates scored a landslide victory, can translate into more calm after nearly six months of turmoil.

Chinese authorities reiterated a need “to stop the violence and restore order” after the election.

Reuters also reported that China’s leaders had set up a crisis command center in the Chinese tech hub of Shenzhen, just across the border from Hong Kong, to deal with protests that have become the biggest populist challenge since China’s leader Xi Jinping came to power in 2012.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ Office in Hong Kong called the report “false,” without elaborating, in a statement posted on its website Tuesday.

“No matter how the situation in Hong Kong changes, the Chinese government’s determination to safeguard national sovereignty, security, and development interests is unwavering,” it said.

Despite the euphoria among protesters over the electoral victory, in which democracy advocates swept around 86 percent of the 452 district council seats, fresh demonstrations were planned for the weekend, including a march to protest the use of teargas on “children.”

The city-wide elections drew a record turnout and were seen as a vote of no-confidence against Hong Kong‘s Beijing-backed leader Carrie Lam over her handling of the financial hub’s worst crisis in decades.

One Hong Kong newspaper, Sing Pao, published a front-page spread for the second successive day calling for Lam’s resignation. “Hong Kong people had enough, Carrie Lam quit,” it read.

Demonstrators are angry at what they see as Chinese meddling in the freedoms promised to the former British colony when it returned to Chinese rule in 1997.

China denies interfering and says it is committed to the “one country, two systems” formula put in place at that time.

Reporting by Jessie Pang, Clare Jim, and James Pomfret; Writing by Anne Marie Roantree; Editing by Paul Tait & Simon Cameron-Moore