Commentary: Hong Kong campus siege widens split between moderates, radicals

Commentary: Hong Kong campus siege widens split between moderates, radicals

Some moderates believe that radical protesters went too far by vandalising university facilities, say Charles Fung at CUHK and Lee Chung-wing from PolyU.

Anti-government demonstrators attend a protest march in Hong Kong
An anti-government demonstrator throws a petrol bomb at Sham Shui Po Police Station during a protest in Hong Kong, China, October 20, 2019. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu

HONG KONG: Hundreds of protesters at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU) remained barricaded in the university campus after days of running battles with the police. 

Some days before, police successfully encircled the campus in downtown Hong Kong, making mass arrests, before retreating and then preventing some of those who remained from leaving.

Many were concerned that the clash between protesters and police at PolyU could eventually lead to a showdown similar to what happened in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 1989.

READ: Options narrow for last Hong Kong campus protesters as arrests take a toll

BATTLE SCENES AT CUHK AND POLYU

The violent scenes at PolyU were preceded by a standoff at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) which began on Nov 11. As researchers based at these two universities, we have witnessed first-hand the clashes between police and protestors.

Many people sympathetic to the ongoing protest movement understand it as a defence of a university campus against the police. 

For them, the brief police presence on a university campus is an outright attempt by the government to suppress the freedom of speech in universities.

READ: Commentary: This may be the end of Hong Kong as we know it

The standoff at CUHK began as calls for another general strike grew following the death of a university student, Chow Tsz-lok from an injury sustained during a protest.

While the cause of Chow’s death remains unclear, many anti-government protesters think that the police are responsible.

Protesters sleep on an athletics track in the grounds of the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK)
Protesters sleep on an athletics track in the grounds of the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK), Nov 13, 2019. (Photo: AFP/Anthony Wallace)

Amid calls to paralyse Hong Kong during the strike, student protesters at CUHK took a call to disrupt traffic seriously.

Under the number 2 bridge at CUHK campus is the Tolo highway which connects northern Hong Kong and the rest of the city. On the morning of Nov 11, protesters began to throw objects from the bridge down to the highway, hoping to stop the traffic there.

The police responded by using force to deter the protesters, who then retreated into the campus.

READ: Commentary: Are Hong Kong police officers equipped to deal with new wave of protests?

We saw the clash between protesters and police turn the campus into a battlefield where the riot police fired thousands of tear gas canisters and rubber bullets. They also used a water cannon truck to quell the protesters, who retaliated with petrol bombs and flaming arrows.

The clash led the university authority to announce a premature end to the university semester and in the face of such severe confrontation, various foreign consulates urged foreign exchange students, including those from the mainland, to evacuate.

A protester releases a fire arrow with his bow to light a barricade
A protester releases a fire arrow with his bow to light a barricade at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK), Nov 13, 2019. (Photo: AFP/Anthony Wallace)

On Nov 15, a former member of the Independent Police Complaints Council approached the protesters in CUHK, urging them to reopen Tolo Highway for three days and remove all petrol bombs. In exchange, the police would not enter CUHK for those three days.

In response, the protesters demanded that the Hong Kong government go ahead with district council elections scheduled for Nov 24, set up an independent commission of inquiry for investigation into alleged police brutality and misconduct, and release protesters arrested during the clash at CUHK.

SEE: In photos: Hong Kong university campuses burn as student protesters battle police

The protesters compromised by partly reopening the blocked Tolo highway and the government announced that the district council elections would continue, though it rejected the other two demands.

Still, by Nov 16, protesters had left the CUHK campus, an occupation which lasted for almost a week.

READ: Commentary: Has the use of violence in Hong Kong’s protests backfired?

While PolyU, site of the most recent violence, is a separate university institution, it’s also located near a major transport artery, the Cross Harbour Tunnel at Hung Hum, which connects to Kowloon and Hong Kong Island. 

By blocking the tunnel, the new protests at PolyU imitated what happened a week earlier at CUHK – marking the spread of the protests to other universities in Hong Kong.

Hundreds of students make their way to the Polytechnic University (PolyU) during protests, in Hong
Hundreds of students make their way to the Polytechnic University (PolyU) during protests, in Hong Kong, China, November 18, 2019. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha

Amid the current protests, students in all public universities in Hong Kong have demanded their vice-chancellors condemn the police brutality. On Nov 15, a joint statement by the heads of universities in Hong Kong called on the government to respond to the protesters’ demands, resolve the political deadlock and restore public order.

SPLIT EMERGING

It is striking that, so far, the escalation of violence and vandalism across Hong Kong has not significantly driven away the support of more moderate protesters. Many moderate protesters have tolerated the violence of the movement’s more radical factions.

Commentary: Have the Hong Kong police lost control?

The underlying logic here is that the more moderate, middle-class Hong Kong protesters, who are unwilling to bear the political cost of imprisonment for rioting, are contented to let the radical faction employ disruptive tactics. 

Their hope is that the Hong Kong government will agree to compromise and respond to the protest movement’s remaining demands.

It is this relationship between the two factions – moderate and radical – which has been instrumental in the past few weeks. But there are limits to how much violence the moderate faction will accept.

Their patience wore thin when some radical protesters in CUHK attacked faculty buildings and university facilities. For those moderate protesters on campus, the radicals’ attacks were illegitimate because those are not government properties and so it is meaningless to damage them.

READ: Commentary: How violence and brazen actions in Hong Kong were normalised

Damage in Hong Kong on Oct 21, 2019
A man inspects a Bestmart store which was vandalised during Sunday's anti-government protest in Hong Kong, China, Oct 21, 2019. (Photo: REUTERS/Umit Bektas)

Worse still, in the face of these sporadic and unreasonable attacks, the moderate protesters on campus started to worry that vandalism could become uncontrollable and that the radical faction would turn the campus into its own permanent base.

Some were also concerned when the protesters demanded the district council elections go ahead – this was not an agreed demand of the anti-extradition bill movement.

READ: Commentary: The fight behind closed doors at home in Hong Kong

All these moves led the moderate protesters on campus to think that they had been hijacked. 

The university authority leveraged on the split to urge the radicals to leave the campus, or else they would ask for external support (likely from the police) to quell the radicals, especially those who were not CUHK students.

SOLIDARITY FOR NOW

Nevertheless, it’s too soon to declare that the moderate protesters would side with the Hong Kong government and endorse its attempts to restore law and order.

In fact, as long as the government remains unwilling to compromise over the movement’s demands – especially the demand to conduct an independent inquiry into alleged police misconduct – it is unlikely that the radical factions will lose support from the moderate faction.

READ: Commentary: Behind Hong Kong’s extradition bill protests – a looming divide, growing pessimism about the future

As the siege of PolyU continues, some moderates have marched towards the campus in a bid to save their fellow protesters from the siege.

The solidarity among the two factions is dependent on the moderates’ acquiescence of the radicals’ tactics. 

However, it is also possible that the anti-government movement will start to fade if the moderates withdraw their support.

Charles Fung is a teaching assistant in the Department of Sociology at CUHK, and Lee Chun-wing is a lecturer in the Division of Social Sciences at PolyU. This article first appeared on The Conversation.

Source: CNA/el(sl)

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