Hong Kong police on Tuesday besieged a major university, tear gassing its president and pursuing fleeing students onto a sports field while unleashing a hail of rubber bullets and tear gas canisters.
A pall of smoke rose above the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) after students set up barricades to prevent riot police from entering the campus, as President Rocky Tuan and other senior members of staff, tried to negotiate with police to stand down and defuse the standoff.
Police said they had pursued students onto their campus near the New Territories town of Shatin to prevent them from throwing projectiles from a bridge down onto a nearby highway and subway tracks.
As tensions worsened later in the evening, officers opened fire with tear gas and rubber bullets towards Tuan, staff members and a large group of students surrounding them, saying he should leave if he had no control over the black-clad protesters guarding the bridge with barricades, fires and by lobbing petrol bombs and bricks.
Hong Kong's four-month-old protest movement uses the motto "be water," and has no apparent top-down command structure, with tactics agreed by consensus via online messaging apps and forums.
Clashes also continued between protesters and police through the night in Tai Po district to the north of Shatin, amid tear gas, rubber bullets, Molotov cocktails, brick-throwing and arson.
The police assault on the CUHK campus came after a verbal agreement with Tuan that riot police wouldn't enter the campus if students stopped throwing objects onto the highway and railway tracks below.
But protesters said Tuan should have focused on demanding the release of three arrested students, and that riot police withdraw immediately.
The tear gassing that ensued near the No. 2 Bridge lasted for more than an hour, and left the area shrouded in smoke with all present wearing full-face respirators, social media reports and live video streams showed.
Protesters said via Twitter that the students were insisting that police stay away for fear that they would access Hong Kong's internet exchange, which is located on the CUHK campus, and cut off the city's access to the internet outside China.
"Why are the students defending #CUHK with blood from #HongKongPolice? It's where HK internet exchange locates," Twitter user @9Tsuialex wrote. "They're not just defending the campus, but internet freedom of everyone in #HongKong."
Great Firewall fears
Users @WBYeats1865 and @YeoKHamster agreed.
The former wrote: "If #HongKongPolice successfully occupied #CUHK campus, then #HongKong will face PHYSICAL internet disconnection to the outside world, and a local internet lockdown."
"I am sure that no ppl in HK would like to embrace the Great fire wall," the latter wrote, in a reference to the system of blocks, filters and human censorship that limits what residents of mainland China can see online.
Under the "one country, two systems" terms of the 1997 handover agreement, Hong Kong was promised the continuation of its traditional freedoms of speech, association and expression, as well as progress towards fully democratic elections and a separate legal jurisdiction.
But plans to allow extradition to mainland China -- since withdrawn bychief executive Carrie Lam -- sparked a city-wide mass movement that has since broadened to demand fully democratic elections and an independent inquiry into police violence.
The Hong Kong Scholars’ Alliance for Academic Freedom said police were using an unnecessary level of force at a number of Hong Kong universities on Tuesday, saying students should be allowed to gather freely to live and study on campus.
And an international alliance of scholars signed a petition condemning the use of "disproportionate force and retaliatory brutality" by the Hong Kong police against students in university campuses.
"In particular, we are outraged by the unauthorized entry, extensive deployment of tear gas and violent intimidation in the Chinese University of Hong Kong, City University of Hong Kong, Polytechnic University of Hong Kong and the University of Hong Kong on 11th and 12th November, 2019," said the petition.
The petition also hit out at the dehumanizing language used by police officers, "particularly the consistent reference to protesters and supporters of democracy as ‘cockroaches'."
"We believe the defense of academic freedom, the freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly and association, and the responsibility to protect the safety of our students are universal causes common to all," the statement said.
Several major Hong Kong universities announced class cancellations for the third day in a row on Wednesday, as tensions between students and police continued to rise.
'Grave concern' to U.S.
Police beat a Hong Kong Polytechnic University student and forthcoming district elections hopeful outside the university at around 8.00 a.m., leaving him with injuries to his hands and feet, after entering the campus to find him.
Students used traffic barriers, trash cans and other random items to make two-meter-high barricades at the entrance to the university, with riot police gathered on the footbridge outside.
Protesters also faced off with police at City University, with protesters barricading roads and police firing repeated volleys of tear gas in a bid to disperse them. Protesters set up a defensive barrier of umbrellas on the bridge leading to their dormitory buildings.
Roads were blocked and the Mass Transit Rail Corp. announced the closure of several subway stations near the University of Hong Kong.
In Washington, the State Department said it was watching the situation in Hong Kong "with grave concern."
"We condemn violence on all sides, extend our sympathies to victims of violence regardless of their political inclinations, and call for all parties—police and protestors—to exercise restraint," it said in a statement.
"We urge Beijing to honor ... commitments that Hong Kong will 'enjoy a high degree of autonomy' and that the people of Hong Kong will enjoy human rights the freedoms of expression and peaceful assembly—core values that we share with Hong Kong," the statement said.
In mainland China, state media controlled by the ruling Chinese Communist Party referred to Hong Kong protesters as "thugs," and said Monday's live-fire shooting of a protester at point-blank range was understandable.
Ruling party newspaper the People’s Daily said that masked mobs tried to snatch away police officers' guns, and police officers were forced to shoot them.
"During the turbulence of the past five months, the Hong Kong police force has firmly upheld the rule of law on the front line," the paper said in a commentary, adding that they have the backing of 1.4 billion residents of mainland China.
Beijing-based independent political commentator Song Liqun said the central government under President Xi Jinping looks set to export its own model of governance to Hong Kong, noting that there was no mention of the traditional phrases, "Hong Kong people ruling Hong Kong" or "a high degree of autonomy" in the communique of the ruling party's recently concluded fourth plenum.
"This can be taken to mean that the Chinese Communist Party has set a new policy direction when it comes to dealing with issues that arise in Hong Kong," Song said, adding that the Hong Kong police force have undergone a total shift in culture, discipline and tactics towards a modus operandi that is far closer to that of police in mainland China.
Reported by Tseng Yat-yiu, Tseng Lap-yin and Man Hoi-tsan for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Qiao Long for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.