Hong Kong: the occupation of Poly U

Colin Sparks reports on the ongoing occupation of the Polytechnic University by protesters in Hong Kong.

A graffiti reading 'liberty or death' on a white wall, with a person sitting on the floor on the left hand side.

The week-long occupation of the Polytechnic University (Poly U) in Hung Hom is today’s flashpoint in Hong Kong’s heroic struggle for democracy.  The campus and the surrounding streets have been the scene of bitter battles between protestors and the cops. The government and the police have clearly decided that crushing the resistance at Poly U will represent a decisive victory in their struggle against the protestors.  Occupations of other universities, notably that of Chinese University, ended last week with the protestors leaving without interference. In contrast, police bottled the protestors into the Poly U campus and arrested anyone, even journalists and medical staff,  trying to leave.  

Thousands of Hong Kongers have come onto the streets in support of the occupation.  They have tried to march to relieve the campus but have been stopped by tear gar and rubber bullets.  Others have occupied major arteries and fought running battles with the police to try to divert their attention and resources away from the siege of Poly U in order give the occupiers a better chance to break out.  Some of the occupiers have managed to escape by climbing down from a bridge and being whisked away by volunteers on motorcycles.   The police have offered the others a stark choice:  surrender and be arrested for rioting or face a violent assault and be arrested for rioting.  A delegation of senior figures, including prominent pro-Beijing politician Jasper Tsang, did persuade the police to allow them into the campus to negotiate a peaceful exit.  They managed to evacuate around 200 protestors under 18 on condition that they gave details of their identities, but the 100 or so adults who left with them were immediately arrested.

The government and their backers in Beijing have decided that it is only through violence and mass arrests that they can stop the movement.  Since Sunday, more than 400 people have been arrested. That is around ten per cent of the total of more than 4,500 over the last five months of protest.  Today, the total of arrests is even higher than that during the 1967 struggle against the colonial government. Senior figures are already arguing that Sunday’s upcoming District Council elections, in which candidates supporting the democratic movement are almost certainly to win a landslide, should be postponed or cancelled.  

Beijing, for its part, has hardened its line.  On Sunday, for the first time, PLA troops from the local garrison came out of their barracks.  In a well-judged PR stunt, they ventured a few hundred metres from their Wellington Road barracks in Kowloon Tong to clear the road barricades built by students from the adjacent Baptist University.  They wore gym clothing rather than combat fatigues and met with no resistance from the deserted campus. The image they tried to present was of a helpful force intervening only to solve a problem facing Hong Kongers, just like when they helped in clearing the wreckage from the last big typhoon.  There was a harder edge to the exercise, however. The gym kit that they wore carried the insignia of an elite anti-terror battalion usually stationed in Western China for use against separatist militants. Alongside the message that the PLA is on the streets of Hong Kong only to help there was the threat that Beijing has the will and the means to employ the same ruthless tactics as they have in Xinjiang. 

Beijing has made a similarly harsh response to a ruling by the Hong Kong High that the notorious ban on wearing masks in public violates the Basic Law.  They see it as an unwelcome concession to the protestors. For them, this is just another indication of why the system of judicial independence operating in Hong Kong does not deliver the kinds of results they desire, and another reason why it needs to be modified in Beijing’s image.  Senior mainland politicians have immediately denounced the ruling and repeated that they can simply overrule Hong Kong judges, as they have done several times in the past, ‘interpreting’ Hong Kong’s laws to suit their interests. The Communist Party’s official mouthpiece, People’s Daily, carried a front-page article saying that there is ‘no room for compromise,’ that the aim of the protestors is to break up the country, and that the movement has to be defeated.  

A hand-drawn picture of a protester in a hard hat, mask and one eye missing, a reference to the ongoing violence by the Hong Kong police.

At the time of writing (19.00 Hong Kong time on 19 November) around 100 protestors were still occupying Poly U.   Those that remain are exploring every possible avenue of escape. They are enduring cold, hunger and exhaustion, but it can only be a matter of time before they either surrender or the cops storm their last strongholds.  The occupation of fixed sites like university campuses represented a change of tactics by the protestors. Previously, their slogan has been ‘Be water’. Whenever the police massed sufficient forces to attack them, the demonstrators melted away, only to gather again in another place.  This tactic favoured the protestors. It fitted very well with their astonishing powers of spontaneous self-organization and It minimized the number of arrests, forcing the police to rush around trying to stem the latest demonstration. Static operations shift the balance towards the police.  It allows them to concentrate their resources in one place and deploy their superior equipment – water cannon, armoured cars, even firearms – at their leisure. It has also meant that protestors have far fewer opportunities to evade arrest and regroup elsewhere. 

On the other hand, of course, the courage and determination of the protestors to defend the campus is an inspiration to others.  The siege of Poly U will go down in political history alongside earlier heroic defences of universities against the police and army, like the occupation of Athens Polytechnic.  That took place almost 46 years ago to the day, on 17 November 1973.  The occupation ended with the military storming into the building and evicting the students.  It was, however, the beginning of the end for the military junta that then ruled Greece, which fell to an internal coup a few days later.  The new leader was in turn overthrown six months later after he backed a failed coup attempt in Cyprus that led to a Turkish invasion, and Greece became a democracy once again.  The students’ struggle remains living memory. Every year, thousands of Greeks march co commemorate the occupation: the most recent memorial took place last Sunday.

We cannot be so hopeful of the short-term outcome of the siege of Poly U. While the level of resistance would be enough to topple the local government on its own, Beijing has a bigger and firmer base on the mainland than did the Greek colonels.  The memory of Tiananmen is still fresh in the minds of Hong Kongers and that does not provide a good omen. The crushing of Poly U will not stop the movement in Hong Kong. At the very least, the occupation will stand as a memorial to the determination of Hong Kongers to fight for a democratic system and an inspiration to others in the ongoing fight.  At best, it will be a catalyst to greater mass protests in the next days, including an overwhelming vote for democracy on 24 November, and provide a stepping stone to achieving at least some of the five demands. 

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