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With Hong Kong crippled by unrest, college students evacuate a burning city

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 2019-11-13 Ryan Ho Kilpatrick, Anna Kam, Casey Quackenbush

a person sitting on a motorcycle in a parking lot: A pro-democracy protester with protection gear holds a molotov cocktail on a bridge outside the Chinese University campus in Hong Kong on Wednesday. © Ng Han Guan/AP A pro-democracy protester with protection gear holds a molotov cocktail on a bridge outside the Chinese University campus in Hong Kong on Wednesday.

HONG KONG —Hong Kong was paralyzed for a third consecutive day as pro-democracy protesters prepared to target dozens of locations around the city later Wednesday, after chaotic battles between riot police and student protesters the previous night left a university campus resembling a combat zone. 

Bus routes, train services and major roads were shut down Wednesday, as a general strike called in reaction to the death of a young demonstrator brought more chaos for commuters. At institutions including the Chinese University of Hong Kong, the scene of Tuesday night’s confrontations, students from mainland China and elsewhere began to evacuate the city because of the escalating political unrest.

Education officials said all classes would be suspended Thursday, and some universities canceled programs until the end of the semester. By nightfall, protesters resumed setting up barricades and roadblocks in preparation for fresh confrontations with riot police.

The rapidly deteriorating situation has fueled fears of major intervention by the Chinese government. Beijing has backed the authorities in Hong Kong, a semiautonomous territory and one of the world’s largest financial centers, in increasing repression to try to squelch the unrest. Front-line protesters have responded by escalating their actions against police.

a man that is on fire: A protester pours petrol onto a burning barricade at the Chinese University of Hong Kong early on Wednesday. The campus became a battleground between demonstrators and riot police. © Anthony Wallace/Afp Via Getty Images A protester pours petrol onto a burning barricade at the Chinese University of Hong Kong early on Wednesday. The campus became a battleground between demonstrators and riot police.

On Wednesday, China’s Foreign Ministry reiterated that Beijing would not compromise with demonstrators, who are demanding full democracy for Hong Kong and an independent inquiry of police brutality during more than five months of clashes.

“Hong Kong’s problem is not about human rights or democracy; rather, it’s about stopping violence and chaos, restoring order,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said at a regular news briefing. Chinese state media condemned protesters as “black-clad rioters” who are endangering lives.

At the Chinese University, one of Hong Kong’s top colleges, there was a welcome respite Wednesday after clashes overnight in which riot police fired 2,000 rounds of tear gas and rubber bullets as they tried to storm the campus but were beaten back by protesters armed with gasoline bombs and bricks.

Police expressed suspicions Wednesday that the Chinese University has become a “weapons factory.” The university said it condemns the violence, noting that a number of students have been injured.

a group of people standing around a fire: Protesters stand in front of a burning barricade at the Chinese University, as Hong Kong’s political crisis escalated dramatically. © Anthony Wallace/Afp Via Getty Images Protesters stand in front of a burning barricade at the Chinese University, as Hong Kong’s political crisis escalated dramatically.

With the crisis escalating, and classes suspended, some students took the opportunity to leave Hong Kong. The Chinese government’s Hong Kong liaison office, which represents Beijing’s interests, set up a hotline to help students who were trying to get back across the border.

The Marine Police used a patrol launch to evacuate students from mainland China, ferrying them from a nearby pier across a cove, where they could make arrangements to leave. All train and bus routes to the university were closed, and surrounding roads were blocked.

“My parents wanted me to leave and get out of Hong Kong,” Yuki, 19, a student from China’s Hubei province, said as she left for the mainland city of Shenzhen. Although she was unsettled by protesters’ vandalism of pro-government businesses, Yuki said she knew that she would be safe if she stayed out of the protesters’ way. She said she plans to return when classes resume.

Jay Thuluri, a Chinese University exchange student from Babson College in Wellesley, Mass., said he plans to return to the United States on Thursday after his parents told him to get out.

“I came here to study,” he said. “Now I cannot study because school is suspended. There is no point for me to stay here with the potential of dangerous situations.”

a man and a woman standing in front of a building: A student pushes his luggage past pro-democracy protesters as he leaves the Chinese University of Hong Kong on Wednesday. © Kin Cheung/AP A student pushes his luggage past pro-democracy protesters as he leaves the Chinese University of Hong Kong on Wednesday.

At Hong Kong Baptist University, dozens of protesters erected barricades at road junctions around the campus, using street barriers, bricks and scaffolding.

A 24-year-old woman who gave her name only as K, out of fear of reprisals, said the police had “crossed the line” by storming the Chinese University.

“Campus is supposed to be one of the safest places,” she said. “The [Chinese] University is a symbol of liberty and democracy, and they are trying to attack it. That’s why students are trying so hard to defend it.”

Late Wednesday, a court rejected a request from the university’s student union for an injunction to prevent police from entering the campus without a warrant.

In the central business district, office workers occupied downtown streets during their lunch breaks Wednesday, chanting, “Save our students!” and cheering front-line protesters who faced down riot police. As the narrow streets filled with tear gas fired by police, hundreds ran away coughing, while dozens were subdued on the doorsteps of luxury shops.

Protesters are pushing back against Beijing’s increasing encroachment on Hong Kong’s freedom and autonomy, which China promised to maintain until 2047 under an agreement with Britain that transferred sovereignty over the former colony to Beijing in 1997.

Along with other demands, protesters are calling for the right to elect Hong Kong’s leader, who at present is appointed by a committee largely made up of pro-Beijing establishment figures.

The current chief executive, Carrie Lam, has withdrawn a bill that would have allowed extraditions to mainland China — the initial spark for the unrest. But she has refused demands for political liberalization and an independent inquiry of police use of force, instead urging people to wait for the results of an investigation by a police watchdog with limited powers.

“We want to choose a true chief executive for the Hong Kong people,” office worker Dennis Tang, 25, said as he called on others to join the protesters. “In these five months, Carrie Lam has pushed Hong Kong to hell and has used the police as a tool to suppress the people.”

a group of people riding on the back of a motorcycle: Police detain a man after protesters blocked roads in downtown Hong Kong on Wednesday. © Dale De La Rey/Afp Via Getty Images Police detain a man after protesters blocked roads in downtown Hong Kong on Wednesday.

Matthew Cheung, Hong Kong’s chief secretary, said the government “has the ability and determination to end the violence” and fully supports the police.

The unrest poses a direct challenge to Chinese leader Xi Jinping. The Chinese government has accused foreign powers, particularly the United States and Britain, of fomenting the unrest.

Sonny Lo, a political analyst and expert on Hong Kong-China relations, said Hong Kong now faces a “system failure” and needs intermediaries, such as university chiefs, to sit down with government leaders and find a solution.

“Beijing says its bottom line is ‘all this violence has to stop.’ It’s up to the Hong Kong government leadership itself to design measures [in response], but all the measures have been so hard-line,” he said. There need to be “carrots” as well as a “stick,” he added.

foreign@washpost.com

Liu Yang in Beijing contributed to this report. 

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