SAR’s Academic Freedom Monitoring Project investigates and reports attacks on higher education with the aim of raising awareness, generating advocacy, and increasing protection for scholars, students, and academic communities. Learn more.

Date of Incident: November 17, 2019

Attack Types: Killings, Violence, Disappearances | Other

Institution(s):Hong Kong Polytechnic University

Region & Country:Eastern Asia | Hong Kong 

New or Ongoing:Ongoing Incident

On November 17, 2019, police clashed violently with protesters on the campus of Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU) for more than twenty-four hours. Hundreds were reportedly injured, including students, non-student protesters, journalists, and medical volunteers, and many more arrested.

Since April 2019, Hong Kong has been engulfed in protests, first sparked by a controversial bill (that has since been withdrawn) and, over time, in response to the leadership of Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam; excessive force and other actions of the Hong Kong police; and concerns that democratic society is shrinking in Hong Kong. Students and other young Hong Kongers, including secondary school students, have been at the forefront of the largely peaceful protest movement.

Protests intensified on November 11, as police carried out raids on at least three major university campuses, including the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK), PolyU, and the University of Hong Kong (see report). Police fired tear gas, rubber bullets, and sponge grenades at protesters, while some of the protesters responded by throwing gasoline bombs and bricks, and firing flaming arrows. Intense, violent clashes continued for several days, leading universities to announce the suspension of academic activities on campus for the remainder of the semester. By November 15, protesters had largely been forced from the CUHK campus, while many were still reported to be on the campuses of PolyU and HKU.

On the morning of November 17, armored police vans outside PolyU fired water cannons and blue dye at protesters, some of whom had been clashing with people attempting to clear debris and roadblocks on nearby streets. (Blue dye has been used by police throughout the protests as a way of marking protesters on the front lines, thereby enabling police to later identify them. Some have reported that the dye irritates the skin and can cause a burning pain.)

Violent clashes continued over the course of the day, especially around the intersection of Austin Road and Chatham Road. Police continued firing water cannons and tear gas, while protesters defended themselves by throwing gasoline bombs and firing arrows in return. According to media reports, a local reporter was hospitalized for severe injuries after being struck by a police water cannon, and a police media liaison officer was wounded by a protester’s arrow. Later in the afternoon, some of the protesters heeded a call by fellow protesters to retreat into the campus, while many stayed behind and guarded campus entry points.

By evening, protesters occupied bridges and roads leading into campus as police continued to fire tear gas and began establishing a perimeter around PolyU. Some of the protesters reportedly hurled gasoline bombs at armored police vehicles advancing at them atop Cheong Wan Road bridge, which leads to PolyU’s Hung Hom campus. A footbridge near the Cross-Harbour Tunnel also reportedly caught fire during the clashes.

Police issued a statement shortly thereafter describing the protesters as rioters and later announced to protesters that they were prepared to use live ammunition if necessary. (Police earlier fired a live round at a vehicle that allegedly attempted to ram into officers.)

Those attempting to exit the campus were required to leave through a single police checkpoint at which they would be required to show identification and have their belongings searched. Police had also reportedly announced that they would arrest all those exiting who did not have official media credentials, and that civilians attempting to assist protesters would also be criminally charged. One video apparently taken near the PolyU campus showed police firing tear gas at drivers of vehicles parked off campus who were allegedly waiting to help evacuate protesters from PolyU. Some protesters on the above-mentioned footbridge, who were apparently unable to safely escape clashes with police, attempted to descend by rope and flee the campus. Violent volleys continued throughout the night, while protesters, journalists, and others attempted various escape routes amidst constant tear gas firing by police.

By the following morning, over one hundred people had reportedly been arrested on campus. At least one source described many of the arrested as having no official connection with PolyU. Police reportedly seized from those arrested dangerous, flammable materials that had allegedly been stolen from PolyU laboratories. Media sources reported that police had fired thousands of rounds of tear gas and rubber bullets, and hundreds of sponge bombs during their incursion on the PolyU campus.

Hundreds of protesters, including a large number of secondary school students, remained on campus as of Monday morning; many reports described those on campus as being trapped and fearing police retaliation. Secondary school officials and university faculty were reportedly provided access to campus and later reappeared escorting students off campus. Adult protesters were reportedly arrested and taken into custody upon exit, while minors were permitted to return home but may remain subject to prosecution. The exact number of arrests is unclear, but as of Tuesday, the Hong Kong police announced that as many as one thousand individuals had been taken into custody.

Hundreds of injuries had been reported by Tuesday, but the full extent of injuries suffered by protesters, police, journalists, and others is unclear. Roughly one hundred protesters and others, including medical volunteers, were reportedly barricaded on campus as late as Tuesday morning. Sources indicate that many still inside the campus had suffered injuries and some reported symptoms of hypothermia, likely due to the police use of water cannons.

Scholars at Risk is gravely concerned about police raids and extensive violence on a university campus in connection with protests. While state authorities have a responsibility to maintain order and safety, they also have an obligation to exercise restraint and to ensure that their actions de-escalate rather than incite violence, do not endanger students, personnel, and others on campus, and respect universities’ institutional autonomy, and the right to freedoms of expression, assembly, and association on campus. Likewise, while students and others have a right to freedom of expression and freedom of assembly, they also have a responsibility to exercise those rights peacefully and responsibly. Violence, including especially clashes between police and protesters, threatens the safety of campus communities and undermines institutional autonomy and democratic society generally.

SAR calls on all parties, especially government and university authorities, to take immediate steps to de-escalate violence and to ensure the safety and well-being of all persons, including protesters. SAR further calls on authorities to ensure the due process rights of all persons in any investigations or proceedings arising out of the protests, including protesters and security forces, and to ensure the well-being of those in custody, including guaranteeing access to counsel, medical treatment, and family.

NOTE: Given the ongoing nature of events on the PolyU campus, updates may be made to the above report to reflect new reporting by media outlets and human rights groups.

UPDATE: On Thursday, November 28, Hong Kong police reportedly withdrew from the PolyU campus, and the campus was reopened.