Rallies erupted across the city, with people expressing support for the trapped students. “Save PolyU, save the students!” they chanted. In the densely packed streets adjoining the university, demonstrators using umbrellas as shields edged toward police lines and were repulsed with tear gas.
Unable to forge a political settlement to end an uprising that has shattered Hong Kong’s reputation as a stable base for business, the city’s embattled leadership has appeared increasingly paralyzed even as it has clamped down harder on demonstrators.
The spiraling violence and heavy-handed crackdown have sharpened concerns about China’s “one country, two systems” framework under which Hong Kong, led by Chief Executive Carrie Lam, is supposed to enjoy relative freedoms and autonomy from Beijing until 2047, except on matters such as foreign affairs and defense.
The violence on campus and the police response pointed to a lack of leadership and confusion among both Hong Kong leaders and Beijing, said Minxin Pei, an expert on Chinese politics at Claremont McKenna College. Even as police threatened to use live rounds to crush the occupation at Polytechnic, Lam was notably absent from public view all weekend, at a time when Chinese leader Xi Jinping was traveling overseas.
“Carrie Lam really does not want to be seen as responsible for any large-scale violence at this point, as Beijing will make the ultimate decision whether to escalate to use live rounds,” Pei said. “I don’t think Beijing wants to cause massive bloodshed, but the decisions made in Beijing over the next 48 hours will be crucial.”
In the latest setback for Lam, Hong Kong’s High Court ruled Monday that the government’s use of a British colonial-era emergency ordinance to ban face coverings at public gatherings was unconstitutional. Lam had introduced the measure, sought by pro-Beijing politicians, to aid police in identifying protesters and effectively expand powers of arrest.
Lam visited an injured police officer in the hospital on Monday, staying for about 10 minutes. She did not make public remarks, and her office did not respond to a request for comment. Later in the day, in a message on her Facebook account, Lam condemned the protesters and urged them to obey police.
At the Polytechnic University, a front-line protester, who declined to give their name out of fear of retribution, said people were frantically trying to find a way out of the campus in the face of the police encirclement. Protesters who broke inside a doctor’s office left blood around the room — and a note apologizing.
The university’s president, Jin-Guang Teng, in a video statement urged students to hand themselves in to the authorities.
Nearby, broken bricks, scaffolding and fences were strewn across the streets of the Tsim Sha Tsui shopping district as police began to close the perimeter around the university.
“We feel very disappointed about the government,” said a 30-year-old clerk named Peter, who was dressed in business attire as he watched tear gas billow out from an alleyway. “There are many ways to solve the problem, like dialogue. The government hasn’t done anything to solve the issue, instead forcing protesters to violence.”
Sophia, a volunteer handing out food outside a nearby church, said she wanted to help the PolyU students, describing the situation as “heartbreaking.” Some 500 to 600 students were trapped in the campus, said Derek Liu, president of the university’s student union.
At a news conference, regional police commander Cheuk Hau-yip said officers had given protesters “enough time and enough warnings” to disperse. Police had arranged for Red Cross volunteers to enter the facility and for ambulances to convey injured protesters to the hospital, the force said in a statement.
With the crisis escalating, fears are mounting that China’s ruling Communist Party might attempt a lethal intervention. In 1989, soldiers opened fire in Tiananmen Square, killing hundreds, perhaps thousands, of student demonstrators.
Chinese state media on Monday was baying for blood. In a commentary on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, Hu Xijin, editor of the Global Times tabloid, called for Hong Kong police to be authorized to use rifles against demonstrators, who have armed themselves with molotov cocktails, bows and arrows, bricks and other weapons. Snipers should use live ammunition to take out armed demonstrators, Hu said, adding that “If there are rioter deaths, police do not have to assume legal liability.”
In an English-language editorial, the state-run China Daily newspaper said Xi had urged Hong Kong’s government to take “firmer action” to restore order, in his strongest statement to date. “The [Hong Kong] government, which has taken a relatively soft line up to now, should shoulder its responsibility to safeguard the lives and well-being of Hong Kong’s law-abiding residents and take more decisive measures to counter the violence and uphold the rule of law,” the editorial said.
Under pressure from the trade war with the United States, global criticism of China’s repression of ethnic minorities in Xinjiang, and a slowing domestic economy, Xi has sought to project a tough line on Hong Kong. But a bloody crackdown would play out under the glare of the world’s media and further entrench worries about Hong Kong’s loss of autonomy under Xi.
China’s Foreign Ministry on Monday said no one should underestimate Beijing’s determination to safeguard China’s sovereignty and Hong Kong’s stability.
The protests flared in June over a now-abandoned proposal to allow criminal suspects to be extradited to mainland China. But the movement has since grown into a broader pushback against China’s growing influence over Hong Kong, encompassing demands for full democracy and police accountability.
Emily Lau, a pro-democracy politician, said Lam was unable to do anything because “she is waiting for orders from Beijing.”
But Xi was caught in a power struggle, she said, and his enemies within the party were “happy to see Hong Kong burn” because it made him appear unable to control the situation.
Between the protesters, Hong Kong’s general population, the local government, and central authorities in Beijing, “the weakest of the four players is our government,” Jasper Tsang, the former head of Hong Kong’s legislature who belonged to the pro-Beijing camp, said over the weekend as he described a city in paralysis.
“The [Hong Kong] government: it is incapable of doing anything, Carrie Lam has admitted it,” Tsang told the Hong Kong Free Press in an interview. “There is no strong decision-making mechanism. [Lam] listens to the hard-liners, and there is no politician who could take responsibility.”
Samson Yuen, assistant professor of political science Hong Kong’s Lingnan University, said Hong Kong’s government had been absent throughout the crisis.
“It would actually be quite surprising it they came out at this moment and suddenly offered a political solution,” he said. “It’s almost designed to be like this, from the moment they decided not to negotiate with protesters. That just means a suppressive outcome.”
Shih reported from Beijing. David Crawshaw contributed to this report.