Waves of student protesters attempted daring escapes past police lines Tuesday, while fewer than 200 others remain barricaded and surrounded by riot police inside a Hong Kong university.
VOA Cantonese Service reporter Iris Tong, who was with students inside the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, described scenes of desperation, with at least two young teenagers threatening suicide.
“I saw one boy (threaten) to use a knife on his neck,” Tong says. “I didn’t see any blood from his neck, but he just talked about how he wanted to kill himself. But other people said it wasn’t necessary for him to do that and told him to put down the knife.”
“I can feel they are hopeless,” she said. “It’s quite sad.”
Since Sunday, police have ordered the protesters to drop their homemade weapons and leave the campus via a single exit, where they likely would face riot-related charges. As of early Tuesday, hundreds had agreed to leave the school following negotiations by local officials and community leaders.
Many other students have attempted to escape to freedom -- some by sliding down ropes to waiting motorcycles, which tried to zoom past the security cordon that surrounds the campus. Police have fired tear gas and rubber bullets at those who attempt to flee.
Last week, hundreds of students barricades themselves on the campus, collecting makeshift weapons including bricks, arrows, and molotov cocktails. Now, only “100-something” protesters remain, says Tong. “But less than half of them can go to the frontlines,” she estimates.
Hong Kong’s executive Carrie Lam on Tuesday made her first substantial remarks on the standoff, saying she is “extremely worried” and hopes the situation can be resolved peacefully.
But the Beijing-friendly Lam also defended police actions, saying she was shocked that the students had turned the campus into a “weapons factory.” About 600 protesters have left the campus so far, Lam said.
The scene around the campus was relatively calm as of midday Tuesday. A night earlier, waves of protesters tried unsuccessfully to breach police lines and reach the campus with supplies. Protesters lobbed petrol bombs at police and set obstructions on the street, but were eventually turned back by the police, who fired water cannons, tear gas, and rubber bullets.
The clashes are some of the worst violence since anti-government protests began in Hong Kong five months ago.
The protests started in opposition to a proposed bill that would have allowed Hong Kong citizens to be extradited to the mainland. The protests quickly morphed into wider calls for democracy and opposition to growing Chinese influence.
A smaller group of hardcore protesters have also increasingly engaged in more aggressive tactics – clashing with police, destroying public infrastructure, and vandalizing symbols of state power. The protesters have defended the tactics as a necessary response to police violence and the government's refusal to make political concessions.
Beijing standing firm
Neither Beijing nor Hong Kong authorities show signs of giving in.
Earlier this week, Hong Kong’s High Court ruled that the government’s ban on face masks was unconstitutional. The face mask ban, which went into effect last month, punished offenders with up to a year in prison.
But China’s top legislature on Tuesday slammed the court ruling, insisting Hong Kong courts have no authority to rule on the legality of legislation.
Beijing’s statement fundamentally threatens the rule of law in Hong Kong, says Angel Wong, a Hong Kong lawyer.
“This completely changes our understanding of our legal system,” says Wong. “It makes us worry what Beijing will do to take away the power of the Hong Kong court(s).”
Many Hong Kongers are outraged by the steady erosion of the “one country, two systems” policy that Beijing has used to govern Hong Kong since Britain handed it over to China in 1997.