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Preparing for a clash with police at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Jerome Favre/EPA

Hong Kong: violence at universities tests moderate support for more radical protesters

Hundreds of protesters at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU) remained barricaded in the university campus on November 19 after days of running battles around the campus between police and the protesters. The day before, police successfully encircled the campus in downtown Hong Kong, making mass arrests, before retreating and then preventing some of those who remained from leaving.

Many were concerned that the clash between protesters and police at PolyU could eventually lead to a massacre similar to what happened in Tiananmen Square in Beijing in 1989 if live ammunition were used against the protesters.

The violent scenes at PolyU were preceded by a standoff at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) which began on November 11. As researchers based at these two universities, we have witnessed first-hand the continuing clashes between police and protestors.

Many people sympathetic to the ongoing protest movement understood it as a defence of a university campus against the police. This partly reflects the liberal values, such as academic freedom, upheld by many of the protesters. For them, the brief police presence on a university campus was an outright attempt by the government to suppress the freedom of speech in universities.

The standoff at CUHK began as calls for another general strike grew following the death of a university student, Chow Tsz-lok from an injury sustained during a protest. While the cause of Chow’s death remains unclear, many anti-government protesters think that the police are responsible.

Amid calls to paralyse Hong Kong during the strike, student protesters at CUHK took a call to disrupt traffic seriously. Under the number 2 bridge at CUHK campus is the Tolo highway which connects northern Hong Kong and the rest of the city. On the morning of November 11, protesters began to throw objects from the bridge down to the highway, hoping to stop the traffic there. The police responded by using force to deter the protesters who then retreated onto the campus.

Blocked: the number 2 bridge over Tolo highway. Jerome Favre/EPA

We saw the clash between protesters and police turn the campus into a battlefield where the riot police fired thousands of tear gas canisters and rubber bullets. They also used a water cannon truck to quell the protesters, who then threw back petrol bombs and used arrows of fire to attack in return. Mild vandalism also happened on the university campus. The clash led the university authority to announce a premature end to the university semester and in the face of such severe confrontation, various foreign consulates urged foreign exchange students, including those from the mainland, to evacuate.

Read more: 'We fear Hong Kong will become just another Chinese city': an interview with Martin Lee, grandfather of democracy

On November 15, a former member of the Independent Police Complaints Council approached the protesters in CUHK, urging them to reopen Tolo Highway for three days and remove all petrol bombs. In exchange, the police would not enter CUHK for those three days.

In response, the protesters demanded that the Hong Kong government go ahead with district council elections scheduled for November 24, set up an independent commission of inquiry for investigation into alleged police brutality and misconduct, and release protesters arrested during the clash at CUHK. The protesters compromised by partly reopening the blocked Tolo highway and the government announced that the district council elections would continue, though it rejected the other two demands. Still, by November 16, protesters had left the CUHK campus, an occupation which lasted for almost a week.

While PolyU, site of the most recent violence, is a separate university institution, it’s also located near a major transport artery, the Cross Harbour Tunnel at Hung Hum, which connects to Kowloon and Hong Kong Island. By blocking the tunnel, the new protests at PolyU imitated what happened a week earlier at CUHK – marking the spread of the protests to other universities in Hong Kong.

Student role in politics

Although many participants of Hong Kong’s protest movement, which was sparked by anger against a new extradition bill, refuse to identify with the Chinese nation, as our ongoing research interviewing protesters is showing, many are likely to be influenced by Chinese historical events, including the May Fourth movement of 1919.

Widely seen as the Chinese Renaissance, the May Fourth movement started when university students protested after the post-World War I Paris Conference, where German interests in Shandong Province were transferred to Japan, instead of being returning to Republican China. After the leaders of the protests were arrested, the then-president of Peking University, Cai Yuanpei, resigned in protest.

Since then, not only have Chinese university students had a special role in Chinese politics, Chinese intellectuals often expect the university administration to protect politically active students or even support their political activism.

Amid the current protests, students in all public universities in Hong Kong have demanded their vice-chancellors condemn the police brutality. On November 15, a joint statement by the heads of universities in Hong Kong called on the government to respond to the protesters’ demands and resolve the political deadlock and restore public order.

Split emerging

It’s been striking that, so far, the escalation of violence and vandalism across Hong Kong has not significantly driven away the support of more moderate protesters. Many moderate protesters have tolerated the violence of the movement’s more radical factions.

The underlying logic here is that the more moderate, well-off, middle-class Hong Kong protesters, who are unwilling to bear the political cost of imprisonment for rioting, have been content to leverage the radical faction’s disruptive tactics. Their hope is that the Hong Kong government will agree to compromise and respond to the protest movement’s remaining demands: 1) setting up a commission of inquiry to investigate alleged police brutality and misconduct; 2) amnesty for those arrested; 3) democratic reform; 4) removal of the categorisation of protests as “riots”, and 5) reform of the police organisation.

It’s this relationship between the two factions – moderate and radical – which has been instrumental in the past few weeks. But there are limits to how much violence the moderate faction will accept – and the type of objects being targeted.

Their patience wore thin when some radical protesters in CUHK started sporadically attacking faculty buildings and university facilities. For those moderate protesters on campus, the radicals’ attacks were illegitimate because these aren’t government properties and so it’s meaningless to damage them. Worse still, in the face of these sporadic and unreasonable attacks, the moderate protesters on campus started to worry that the vandalism could become uncontrollable and that the radical faction would turn the campus into its own permanent base.

There was also a concern when the protesters demanded the district council elections go ahead – something which wasn’t an agreed demand of the anti-extradition bill movement. All these moves led the moderate protesters on campus to think they had been hijacked. The university authority leveraged on the split to urge the radicals to leave the campus, or else they would ask for external support (probably the police) to quell the radicals, especially those who were not CUHK students.

Nevertheless, it’s too soon to declare that the moderate protesters – both inside CUHK and outside it – would side with the Hong Kong government to endorse its repressive attempts to restore law and order. In fact, as long as the government remains unwilling to compromise over the movement’s demands – especially the demand to set up a commission of inquiry for investigation into alleged police brutality and misconduct which is popular among the moderate protesters – it’s unlikely that the radical factions will lose support from the moderate faction. And as the siege of PolyU continued on November 18, protesters marched towards the campus in a bid to save the protesters from the siege.

The solidarity among the two factions is dependent on the moderates’ acquiescence of the radicals’ tactics. This means it’s also possible that the anti-government movement will start to fade if the moderates withdraw their support.

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