Protesters blocked roads and metro lines were suspended for a third day in Hong Kong after police laid siege to a leading university, triggering an exodus of mainland Chinese students from the territory.
The latest spasm of violence, which erupted on Monday, has continued despite repeated warnings from Chinese authorities that the chaos had to stop. In its latest statement, Beijing said “mob behaviour would not be tolerated”.
Hours after the territory’s police force on Tuesday warned the city was on “the brink of a total breakdown”, officers fired water cannon, tear gas and rubber bullets at students at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
Authorities in Shenzhen, the Chinese city that borders Hong Kong, said they would provide seven days of free accommodation to mainland students fleeing the violence. A staff member at one Shenzhen hostel said it had taken in 20 students from Hong Kong, with at least another 50 also looking for shelter.
“I supported the protests when they began in June,” one mainland Chinese finance student, who asked not to be named, told the Financial Times. “There has never been such activities and freedom on the mainland, but everything has been derailed [by the violence].” She added that the high-speed train she had left Hong Kong on had been full of mainland students.
Hong Kong police said they had ferried mainland Chinese students away from CUHK on boats at the request of the students because nearby roads were blocked.
A spokesperson for the State Council’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, China’s representative office in the territory, warned on Wednesday: “We must not let ‘anti-China’ elements succeed.” The spokesperson added that Beijing supported the adoption of “more effective actions to severely punish illegal and criminal activities”.
Last month, at the first full meeting of the Chinese Communist party’s central committee in almost two years, leaders hinted that Beijing might take tougher measures to protect its national security interests in the territory. They have yet to announce any specific decisions.
This week’s unrest has rattled investors. The Hang Seng index slid as much as 2.2 per cent on Wednesday morning, taking the fall for the week to almost 4 per cent.
Hong Kong’s government has ordered all state schools to close on Thursday.
The clashes on the university grounds were particularly shocking for many Hong Kongers as campuses are typically viewed as places of sanctuary. University authorities have an agreement with the police that officers will not enter campuses unless responding to an emergency call or if they have a search warrant or court order.
However, under Hong Kong law, officers can enter any public or private place if they suspect a criminal offence has occurred.
On Tuesday, pitched battles raged throughout the night. Fires blazed on campus and there was widespread destruction as riot police used tear gas, even as the university’s vice-chancellor tried to negotiate between students and authorities.
Alumni of the university also responded to calls on messaging app Telegram to offer support. Many walked for almost an hour to reach the campus while others delivered water to the students by motorbike.
Winnie, a doctor and graduate of the university, skirted road blocks to join about 50 other doctors to treat those injured in the clashes. She said watching police “attack” her alma mater felt like her home was being destroyed.
“I did think it was a massacre in there when I arrived. Looking at the environment, the atmosphere, everyone was in that war zone state of mind,” she said.
John Lee, Hong Kong’s security secretary, said universities were not a “lawless frontier”, adding force was properly deployed.
The city’s hospital authority said 81 people had been injured or received treatment after the protests, ranging in age from 10 months to 81 years, since Tuesday morning.
Tensions in the city have risen sharply after police shot a 21-year-old student and a man was set on fire following scuffles with protesters. Last week, a student died in what some demonstrators have said was the first death linked to the protests.
On Wednesday, protesters once again took to the streets in the city’s financial district. Teddy, who works in the corporate department of a bank but was dressed in black, said: “Because the universities are under siege we have come out here in the central business district to pull police resources away from that fight.”
Additional reporting by Xinning Liu and Jamil Anderlini
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