The following article was written by Holmes Chan and Jennifer Creery to analyze in detail the dramatic experience lived by protesters. It was originally published in Hong Kong Free Press on December 12 and this edited version is published in Global Voices under a content association agreement.
The most fierce battle in Hong Kong's anti-government protests since June 2109 was the violent clashes around the Hong Kong Polytechnic University. On a single day, on November 18, riot police launched 1491 tear gas canisters and 1981 rounds of rubber bullets, seed bags and sponge grenades against some 2000 protesters who were trapped inside the university. Thousands arrived to rescue their fellow trapped in the vicinity of the university, which caused multiple clashes in the Kowloon district. Across the city, protesters' defenders created barricades with the intention of distracting and diverting police forces. The battle ended in 12 days of siege at the university where thousands of Protestants were trapped. Finally some were escorted by religious leaders and school directors while others managed to escape. However the incident left a deep scar.
Among the hundreds of protesters trapped inside the Hong Kong Polytechnic University on the night of November 18, surrounded on all sides by riot police, Mario and Cathy discovered the road to freedom six meters down a narrow pedestrian passage.
All they had to do was slide with hanging ropes until they reached the drivers who were waiting for them at the bottom to take them to a safe place. It was now or never, he remembered thinking Mario. The violent confrontation between the students entrenched inside the university and the police had already been violent for 24 hours, and anyone who left was at risk of being arrested. The 23-year-old told HKFP:
I was very nervous because riot police had already discovered the route. They were watching us as we were escaping, and I could hear the reinforcement police vans coming our way.
He was quite nervous because the riot police had also discovered the passage. They watched us as we escaped and could hear how the police support vans came towards us.
Separately, Cathy, 27, was taking three 16-year-old students to the ropes, which she had taken under her protection, but the tear gas was making her escape harder. Many of those who tried it were injured, by the strings that cut their skin or because they fell, some of them had broken bones in the process.
Cathy and Mario – both frequent frontline protesters who use nicknames to avoid arrest – reached the ground with minor injuries and threw themselves into the vehicles that were waiting for them.
The 12-day siege ended with 1300 people arrested and more than 300 hospitalized. The violence reached a new level, the Protestants used Molotov bombs, catapults and bows and arrows, while the police threw tear gas, water cannons and round of projectiles to control the mass.
At the height of the siege, police said they could use real bullets, prompting fears that officers would break into the university and re-launch mass arrests amid an informational blackout – as happened in the attack at Prince Edward Station on 31 of August. Finally the police adopted another alternative: a waiting game that turned the university into a pressure cooker.
The intensity of the fight was not the only reason why the siege of the Polytechnic University was unprecedented. He also raised fundamental issues on how to maintain unity in a movement without leaders, now in its seventh month. He explained the tensions about tactics and strategies, highlighted the mental and physical challenges faced by protesters such as Mario and Cathy and how they dealt with the trauma.
An impossible decision
Since the beginning of the movement, protesters have adhered to the key principle of “Do not leave anyone behind, move forward and backward together.” However, at the Polytechnic University, guerrilla tactics “Being like water” in street clashes no longer worked when the trapped were surrounded.
Mario and Cathy were among those facing a dilemma: should they stay and show solidarity with the besieged or escape to fight another day? The decision was further complicated by unreliable information, as protesters suspected that police sowed misinformation in chat groups in messaging applications such as Telegram. Some escape routes also quickly became obsolete, which makes every attempt to escape more risky.
As Cathy knows the university said she had a chance at the beginning of the siege to escape, but chose to stay because she wanted to witness what would happen and take care of the “humble and innocent” students.
Cathy recalled that a teenager she met was the son of a police officer and had faced the pressures of her mother asking her to surrender, but she was afraid of being arrested. After talking about the situation, they decided to stay.
Mario, on the other hand, tried to escape many times in broad daylight, after a large group of protesters tried to surpass the police lines. He took off his protective gear, with the idea of making him less suspicious.
The decision proved to be a mistake:
At one point, I was breathing in so much tear gas I nearly suffocated. I inhaled tear gas with every breath, and I could feel it in my lungs. It was so painful I felt I was dying.
In a moment, I had inhaled so much tear gas that I was about to suffocate. I inhaled gas with each inhalation and could feel it inside my lungs. It was painful, I felt like I was drowning.
Meanwhile, far from the Polytechnic University, William (also an alias), a 21-year-old student, was busy helping coordinate leaks, contacting all the drivers he knew to take the protesters away from the bridge.
The organizers cut sections of the road to allow only the demonstrators' friendly vehicles to pass through, but although the plan was partially successful, William said he felt guilty of not being able to do more, and explained that about a fifth of those who escaped He was arrested. Said:
It's definitely heartbreaking. It was one of the toughest situations I've ever been in because I'm making decisions that affect whether or not people get out, or whether they get out safely.
It is definitely heartbreaking. It was one of the most difficult situations I have been in because I am making decisions that affect whether people leave or not, or whether or not they leave safely.
Unlike Mario who escaped thanks to a friend who informed him about the escape with rope, Cathy reached the escape route by accident. He took advantage of what may have been the last chance to escape. Facing the guilt that arose in seizing the opportunity to leave has been part of accepting what happened at the Polytechnic University.
Mario said he felt he had acted selfishly and has regrets for not helping more people:
I could not spread the message, because I had to put my own safety first. If I spread that message, the whole world would know and it would doom us all.
I could not spread the message, because I had to put my own safety first. If I spread that message, everyone would know and condemn us all.
Those who managed to flee also spoke with HKFP about how the feeling of fear and despair over what might have happened to them threatened to break solidarity among the protesters, and jeopardized the unity that many felt had been their source of strength.
Both Cathy and Mario entered the Polytechnic University on the afternoon of November 17, in response to an online call for reinforcements. As the fight intensified, the police announced, at night, that anyone could go across the bridge to the north of the university, but the Protestants who tried to take that route were quickly arrested.
The general opinion among the protesters was that it was safer to stay inside where the police could not enter. But that illusion of security quickly became dusty: armed officers entered through the main gate before dawn, only to be pushed back by a Molotov stream that turned the hall into a sea of fire.
The next morning, many protesters were tired, demoralized and injured. Cathy said he slept a few hours during a long and intense night of fighting, while Mario said that the people around him “persisted only with willpower.”
As the protesters within the besieged Polytechnic University accepted the seriousness of their situation, internal struggles and discussions began. Many were young students, according to Cathy, who described them as totally unprepared for confrontations.
He added that others, more enthusiastic, kept the front line and fought against the police; He blamed them for creating a trap from which it was increasingly difficult to escape.
As the siege went on, reports emerged on the deterioration of the mental conditions of the inmates of the Polytechnic University, which included erratic behavior, paranoia and even self-harm. The majority stopped talking to journalists and social workers, instead, retreating to hidden spaces inside campus buildings.
Mario described the situation as a “mental torture” that became intolerable.
You were constantly afraid of people charging in and arresting you, and you didn’t know who undercover police officers were. You didn’t know who to trust.
You were constantly afraid of people coming in and arresting you, you didn't know who the undercover police officers were. You didn't know who to trust.
“A painful lesson”
Cathy and Mario believe that what happened at the Polytechnic University was a mistake that betrayed the central ideology of the protest movement: its fluidity and its refusal to be immobilized.
Mario said it was a “painful lesson” to remind protesters of the dangers of rigid and immobile forms of resistance. Speaking to HKFR, he said that in the days following the campus escape, he was still pathologically afraid of the experience with tremors, loss of appetite and emotional crises.
But while the siege pushed the protesters to their mental and physical limits, and exposed fractures along the way, Cathy and Mario said they finally affirmed the importance of working hard to maintain solidarity, even under the greatest pressure.
Cathy said she was grateful for the partnership she formed with the students:
Throughout these five months I have always been alone, but I (realized) there are always people you can work with.
Through these five months, I've always been alone, but (I realized) that there are always people with whom you can work.
Mario said that, despite the friction on how the siege of the Polytechnic University developed, he felt that he had survived the essential commitment of solidarity between the protesters and continued with the key to the movement:
I don't agree with fighting pitched battles, but I will still choose to go in because I will not abandon my comrades. Every one of them is a person, a Hong Kong citizen… If we abandon them, our movement will have lost its moral compass.
I don't agree with fighting pitched battles, but I will still choose to go because I will not abandon my teammates. Each one is a person, a citizen of Hong Kong. If we abandoned them, our movement would have lost its moral compass.