Hong Kong Campus Holdouts Desperately Seek Escape Routes

By Reuters

HONG KONG—Pro-democracy protesters holed up in a Hong Kong university were frantically searching for escape routes on Nov. 19 after more than two days of clashes with police and dramatic breakouts by rope and motorcycle.

About 100 protesters were trapped in the Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU) a day after students, some tired and fearful of police storming the campus, tried again and again to flee, only to be beaten back by police firing rubber bullets, water cannon and tear gas.

Some made it out by rope and motorcycle.

“We will keep trying,” one of the group, dressed all in black, said without giving his name. “It’s better than staying here.”

At PolyU, in the Kowloon district, a sense of despair prevailed amid the shriek of fire alarms.

“I feel I’m in trouble,” said a 22-year-old who gave his name as Marcus, as he sat with two friends in the campus canteen, at a table piled with dirty dishes and plastic cups, debating their options.

“We keep trying to think how to escape, but every time we pick a spot we see many police nearby,” Marcus said.

“But if we give up, we’re finished.”

In the campus central square, a giant “SOS” call for help was spelled out in pink, blue and yellow bath towels.

People pass by an "SOS" sign
People pass by an “SOS” sign written with clothes on the campus of the Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU), in Hong Kong on Nov. 19, 2019. (Athit Perawongmetha/Reuters)

Police have arrested about 1,100 people in the past day on charges including “rioting” and possession of offensive weapons, they said.

Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam said on Tuesday 600 protesters had left the campus, including 200 below the age of 18.

Protesters return to the Hong Kong Polytechnic University
Protesters return to the Hong Kong Polytechnic University campus after failing to escape during protests in Hong Kong on Nov. 19, 2019. (Adnan Abidi/Reuters)

Hundreds of them fled from the university or surrendered overnight amid running battles on nearby streets as police fired tear gas, water cannon and rubber bullets and protesters lobbed petrol bombs and bricks.

“Some protesters were seen escaping by abseiling off a footbridge to getaway vehicles below,” police said in a statement. “Our officers gave chase and were able to interrupt 37 of them including the drivers.”

About a dozen protesters tried to flee through the university’s sewerage system. A Reuters witness saw them lower themselves into a tunnel wearing gas masks and plastic sheets to cover their bodies.

A protester tries to leave the campus
A protester tries to leave the campus of the Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU), in Hong Kong on Nov. 19, 2019. (Athit Perawongmetha/Reuters)

They were not able to escape and had to climb back out of the tunnel.

Some 280 injured were taken to hospitals on Tuesday, the Hospital Authority said.

Many protesters say they fear more bloodshed in a standoff that has seen some of the most intense violence in what has become the worst crisis since Hong Kong’s return from British to Chinese rule in 1997.

‘Come Home Safely’

U.N. human rights office spokesman Rupert Colville urged authorities to de-escalate the situation at PolyU and address the humanitarian situation of those inside.

One woman said her son was inside the campus with his girlfriend and they would come out, but they are afraid of being charged for “rioting,” which can carry a 10-year sentence.

“I know the young people see there are many unrighteous things in society, they want to do something to change it,” said the woman, who gave her name as Chan, 50.

“But as parents, we only have one wish. We only want all of them to come home safely.”

Protesters wait to receive medical attention
Protesters wait to receive medical attention after leaving the Hong Kong Polytechnic University campus, in Hong Kong on Nov. 19, 2019. (Thomas Peter/Reuters)

Protesters were initially angered by a now-withdrawn bill that could have sent people to mainland China for trial. Their campaign has broadened into calls for full democracy and an end to what many see as meddling by Beijing in China’s freest city.

In what many will see as an illustration of Beijing’s tightening grip, China’s rubber-stamp legislature questioned the legality of a Monday Hong Kong court ruling that a ban on face masks worn by protesters was unlawful.

The National People’s Congress (NPC) said Hong Kong courts had no power to rule on the constitutionality of city legislation, the official Xinhua news agency reported.

Dennis Kwok, a lawmaker with the pro-democracy Civic party, denounced the NPC statement on the court ruling as “shocking.”

“Respect the courts in Hong Kong, respect our system—this is the essence of ‘one country two systems’,” he said.

Hundreds of people, many office workers wearing masks, gathered in the business district on Tuesday afternoon for a largely peaceful protest.

The city’s Cross-Harbour Tunnel linking Hong Kong island to Kowloon remained shut due to damage, while some train services and many roads were closed.

All schools were shut.

By Marius Zaharia and Donny Kwok