Three years on, Hong Kongers keep alive memory of Polytechnic University battles

Former protesters say everyone in the city is losing their freedom under a city-wide crackdown on dissent.

By Lee Yuk for RFA Cantonese, and by Chen Zifei for RFA Mandarin

November 21, 2022

In this Nov. 18, 2019 photo, riot policemen pin down a protester as they storm into the Hong Kong Polytechnic University in Hong Kong. During the 11-day siege of PolyU around 1,000 protesters occupied the university demanding fully democratic elections, withdrawal of plans to allow extradition to mainland China, greater official and police accountability, and an amnesty for detained protesters.


Three years after protesters at Hong Kong's Polytechnic University fought pitched battles with columns of riot police and armored cars, many supporters of the city's vanishing freedoms are now in exile.


The 11-day siege of PolyU began on Nov. 18, 2019, after around 1,000 protesters occupied the university as part of an ongoing series of actions to achieve the movement's key demands: fully democratic elections; the withdrawal of plans to allow extradition to mainland China; greater official and police accountability; and an amnesty for detained protesters.


The protesters were then trapped on campus as riot police encircled the area, prompting nearly 100,000 people to turn out to battle riot police across Tsim Sha Tsui, Jordan, Yau Ma Tei, Mong Kok and other parts of the Kowloon peninsula.


Some, like the U.K.-based group Stand With Hong Kong, are using evidence of human rights violations during the siege and elsewhere to put pressure on the British government to impose sanctions on Hong Kong officials responsible for police violence against protesters, including a number of British nationals serving as high-ranking officers in the Hong Kong police force at the time.


Others, like documentary filmmaker Chan Tze-woon, remember the protest movement through film. Chan's latest film "Blue Island" is a retrospective on the protest movement and, in the director's words, represents "a desperate attempt to capture the final moments of a sinking island."


Chan's film was nominated at Taiwan's Golden Horse awards at the weekend, but can't be screened in Hong Kong under citywide crackdown on dissent, including any public reference to the protest movement.


Water cannon and tear gas


Around 1,300 people were arrested during the siege of PolyU, which saw around 300 people sent to different hospitals for injuries related to water cannon blast, tear gas, and rubber bullets, as protesters wielding Molotov cocktails, catapults and other makeshift weapons from behind barricades beat back repeated attempts by riot police to advance into the university campus.


Small groups of protesters continued to make desperate bids for freedom throughout the siege, many of them only to end up being arrested and beaten bloody by police.


Police also deployed tear gas, water cannon, and rubber bullets against a crowd of thousands trying to push through towards Poly U from Jordan district, with hundreds forming human chains to pass bricks, umbrellas, and other supplies to front-line fighters.


Rights groups hit out at the Hong Kong police for 'fanning the flames' of violence, as desperate protesters were trapped for several days inside the campus, while hundreds more waged pitched battles with riot police on the streets of Kowloon.


Call for sanctions


The U.S.-based group Human Rights in China condemned police action in and around Poly U as "trapping students, journalists, and first aiders, and reportedly handcuffing the latter group."


A former protester who gave only the nickname Venus for fear of reprisals against friends and family said she was a 17-year-old high school student who volunteered to extinguish live tear gas rounds on the barricades.


She told a recent news conference in London that she is still living with the psychological trauma of the siege, and called on the government to use "the sacrifices of our Hong Kong brothers and sisters as ammunition."


"A number of countries, such as the United States, have sanctioned Hong Kong officials," Venus said. "We believe the U.K. should also implement Magnitsky-style sanctions," a reference to laws that impose governmental sanctions on foreigners who have committed human rights abuses or been involved in significant corruption.


In its submission to the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office on Nov. 14, the group said: "Over 12 days of the Hong Kong Polytechnic University siege, [police] fired 1,458 tear gas canisters and arrested many leaving the university or the vicinity thereof in an event widely referred to as 'The Siege of PolyU.'"


"Thousands of tear gas canisters and rubber bullets were fired at trapped students, first aiders, and unrelated members of the public [with] water cannons, sonic weapons, and armored [vehicles] deployed against citizens," the report said.


"Trapped Hongkongers desperate to escape the blockage turned to dangerous and life-threatening methods and potential routes as attempts to leave by safe routes were met with projectiles from the Hong Kong Police Force and indiscriminate arrests," it said.


"Despite the [police] promise to not arrest medical workers, in reality many were arrested upon their departure from the premises of PolyU and subsequently charged."


Many were charged with "rioting," punishable by up to 10 years' imprisonment, and some with "illegal assembly," which carries a maximum of five years in jail.


The group is calling for sanctions on then chief executive Carrie Lam, current chief executive John Lee, who was security chief at the time, and current security chief Chris Tang, who was chief of police at the time of protests.


The list also included British nationals Rupert Dover and David Jordan, who were serving as assistant police commissioners at the time of the protest movement, and two police officers suspected of colluding with gang members who attacked people in Yuen Long MTR station on July 21, 2019.


“Blue Island”


In Chan's film “Blue Island,” chaotic scenes of pitched battles between police and protesters wielding makeshift weapons are intercut with interviews and docudrama sequences about people who swam to Hong Kong to escape the political turmoil of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) in mainland China.


But the focus on the protests has made it impossible to show the film to people "who decide to stay and share the fate of the city regardless," in the words of one interviewee.


In this Nov. 18, 2019 photo, riot police storm into Hong Kong Polytechnic University in Hong Kong. Three years after the siege of the city's Polytechnic University by riot police, some Hong Kongers campaign from exile for sanctions on government officials, while others remember the movement through film-making.(Vincent Yu/AP)


Many of his interviewees are now serving jail terms, or awaiting trial, either as former protesters or as former opposition politicians and activists charged under a draconian national security law imposed on the city by the Chinese Communist Party from July 1, 2020.


"Since 2019, it seems that everyone has lost their freedom of speech, and can't express themselves freely," Chan told RFA in a recent interview. "Given that Hong Kong has changed so much, what even is Hong Kong?"


"I hope that we can examine our own values in the eyes of a generation who have been through an important part of history, and wonder along with them what Hong Kong means to us," he said.


Trapped


A former protester who gave only the nickname Shue Tzai for fear of reprisals, said he is only now about to stand trial for "rioting" after being trapped in a narrow subway exit in Yaumatei, where protesters were crushed together after being herded into a too-small space by riot police.


"A lot of people were injured due to the sudden police roundup, passers by and protesters alike," said Shue Tzai, who says he still suffers post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms linked to the incident.


"People were injured before they even had time to react -- there were a lot of different sounds, maybe rubber bullets or flash-grenades," he said. "The alleyway at Exit A1 of the Yaumatei MTR is very narrow, and 100, 200 people couldn't fit into it."


"Even now, the police won't admit it was a crush incident."


Shue Tzai said some of the evidence brought against protesters for "rioting" was entirely circumstantial, and involved the fact that they were wearing black, a ubiquitous color during the protest movement.


"Everyone has lost their freedom over the past three years," he said. "We [who are facing jail] are only a special case of that."


Chan, who financed “Blue Island” through crowdfunding, said filmmakers, teachers and journalists are all under increasing pressure not to run afoul of the national security law.


"But I don't let those kinds of worries or fears grow too big, because I know if I allow these emotions to direct my thinking, I won't be able to make the next film," Chan said. "I think we need to be vigilant, but I'm not afraid."


"I will carry on making films, even if there seems to be no space left to do that," he said.


Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Malcolm Foster.



Source: rfa.org