Two years on, Hong Kong still feels the impact of the Polytechnic University siege

Pitched street battles between very young people and riot police helped trigger widespread mental health issues.
By Jing Bok Wang, Gigi Lee and King Man Ho

Protesters are detained by police near Hong Kong Polytechnic University in the Hung Hom district of Hong Kong on Nov. 18, 2019. (AFP)


Protesters sing “Glory to Hong Kong” outside Polytechnic University on Nov. 25, 2019. (Reuters)


Protesters walk past brick obstacles in a road near Polytechnic University on Nov. 14, 2019, (Associated Press)


Anti-government protesters guard a bridge outside Polytechnic University on Nov. 16, 2019. (Reuters)


Police in riot gear move through a cloud of tear gas as they detain a protester at the Polytechnic University on Nov. 18, 2019. (Associated Press)


A protester walks past burning debris as police storm part of the Polytechnic University campus during the early morning hours of Nov. 18, 2019. (Associated Press)


A protester (left) is beaten by riot police while attempting to find safe passage out of the Polytechnic University campus on Nov. 18, 2019. (AFP)


A protester bleeds from his head after being detained by police near the Polytechnic University on Nov. 18, 2019. (AFP)


Protesters leave from the main entrance to Polytechnic University on Nov. 19, 2019. (AFP)


A man clears debris after the two-week campus siege of Polytechnic University. (Reuters)

Two years after a pitched battle between protesters and riot police who laid siege to Hong Kong's Polytechnic University (PolyU), the city is still living with the after-effects, including a ban on footage of the 12-day siege, which left large numbers of desperate young people trapped on campus with dwindling supplies.

Around 1,300 people were arrested during the clashes, which saw around 300 people sent to different hospitals for injuries related to water cannon blast, tear gas, and rubber bullets, as protesters wielding Molotov cocktails, catapults and other makeshift weapons from behind barricades beat back repeated attempts by riot police to advance into the PolyU campus.

Rights groups hit out at the Hong Kong police for 'fanning the flames' of violence, as desperate protesters were trapped for several days inside the campus, while hundreds more waged pitched battles with riot police on the streets of Kowloon.

The U.S.-based group Human Rights in China condemned police action in and around Poly U as "trapping students, journalists, and first aiders, and reportedly handcuffing the latter group."

Protesters continued to make desperate bids for freedom throughout the siege, many of them only to end up being arrested and beaten bloody by police.

Police arrest a protester at Polytechnic University on Nov. 18, 2019. (AFP)
Police arrest a protester at Polytechnic University on Nov. 18, 2019. (AFP)

A study published by The Lancet in January 2020 found that around one third of Hong Kong adults had reported symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or depression since the protest movement escalated in June 2019.

The prevalence of PTSD symptoms was six times higher than immediately following the 2014 pro-democracy movement in the city, when it stood at around five percent of those surveyed, and was on a par with rates seen in war zones or in places subjected to terrorist attacks, the report said.

Asylum in the UK

The figures would translate into around 1.9 million adults with such symptoms, in a population of 7.4 million.

Frontline protesters, eyewitnesses, journalists and human rights groups have repeatedly said that the majority of violence during the protests originated with the Hong Kong police, who have been widely criticized for the excessive use of tear gas, water cannon, pepper spray, as well as both non-lethal and live ammunition weapons on unarmed protesters.

Protestors react as police fire tear gas near Polytechnic University after police gave protestors an ultimatum to leave the campus on Nov. 17, 2019. (Associated Press)
Protestors react as police fire tear gas near Polytechnic University after police gave protestors an ultimatum to leave the campus on Nov. 17, 2019. (Associated Press)

A former PolyU protester who gave only the nickname Ivan said he was once a mild-mannered high-school student who only cared about the immediate details of his own life.

He found himself trapped inside the PolyU campus for 10 hours, and was arrested while trying to escape, and charged with "obstruction of justice."

Ivan, now 19, went to the U.K, where he is now living in a temporary dormitory provided to asylum-seekers by the Home Office.

He was unable to finish his first grueling asylum interview in June, due to mental health problems that developed after more than six hours of questioning.

"Financially, it's very bad, but the hardest thing of all is the uncertainty about the future," Ivan told RFA in a recent interview. "Applying for political asylum is very complicated, and you're not allowed to work while it's being processed."

"You have to report in regularly, go through complex interviews, and submit huge amounts of evidence," he said. "This all takes a toll on the mental health of asylum applicants in the U.K."

New censorship rules

Ivan has set up a self-help organization to aid people like himself, amid a campaign in the House of Commons to extend eligibility for the British National Overseas (BNO) passport, which carries the right to apply for permanent residency and eventual citizenship, to the children of BNO-elibible parents.

Currently, many of those sought by police for protesting the loss of Hong Kong's promised freedoms are ineligible for the BNO, as they were born after the 1997 handover to Chinese rule.

But Ivan misses his home city, and longs to return one day.

A fire burns near the campus of Polytechnic University early on Nov. 18, 2019. (Associated Press)
A fire burns near the campus of Polytechnic University early on Nov. 18, 2019. (Associated Press)

"I feel like telling everyone, let's just go back to Hong Kong together," he said. "What's wrong with wanting to go back to your own country."

"In the past, the British colonized Hong Kong and now the CCP is colonizing Hong Kong," he said. "Hong Kong people have struggled for so long and there is still no true national self-determination."

Back in Hong Kong, the authorities recently changed the law to ban the showing of films that could "glamorize" the protest movement.

The new censorship rules will likely mean that no documentaries about the protests can now be shown in the city.

In March 2021, organizers canceled a public screening of a documentary about the PolyU siege following a denunciation in a pro-CCP Hong Kong newspaper.

The Hong Kong Film Critics Society canceled the screening of "Inside the Red Brick Wall," following a number of articles in the Beijing-backed Wen Wei Po criticized the film as being in breach of the national security law.

Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.


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