More than 100 pro-democracy protesters made daring escapes from a Hong Kong university campus besieged by police Monday night, crawling through narrow underground tunnels or climbing from overpasses and fleeing on waiting motorbikes.
VICE News spoke to one of the protesters who fled Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU) late Monday, successfully escaping an ongoing police blockade of the campus that has erupted into the most intense confrontation of the five-month protest movement.
“We found a route through the railway and some underground tunnels to escape from the campus,” said the 22-year-old, who, like many on the front lines did not want to be identified for fear of prosecution.
The protester said police eventually discovered the tunnel, which was just wide enough for a person to squeeze through, and began arresting those who were using it to flee — but not before about 100 protesters made their way to safety and avoided arrest.
“It’s not 100 percent safe, but at least some of us made it out that way,” he said, adding he did not want to disclose too much detail about the route, as there were still about 100 protesters trapped inside the campus who were trying to escape.
Police blocked all exits from the campus Sunday in an attempt to clear an occupation by pro-democracy protesters, and met fierce resistance from activists. Police called on those inside to give themselves up, but as the protesters face potential criminal charges of rioting, which carries a maximum 10-year-sentence, many have tried to flee the blockade instead.
Dozens of protesters were seen making their escapes by climbing down ropes dangled from motorway overpasses before being driven away by waiting motorbikes. Others were seen trying to flee through the university’s sewage system, turning back when it proved impossible.
About 600 of those who were unable to escape surrendered to police overnight, according to authorities. About 200 were released because they were under 18 — although they could face charges in the future — and the remaining 400 were placed under arrest.
That left about 100 protesters still holed up inside PolyU Tuesday, as a large police presence remained outside. On Tuesday, in her first public remarks since the PolyU crisis began over the weekend, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam called for a peaceful resolution, saying that she hoped the last stand of the protesters would play out without further violence.
“If the protesters are coming out in a peaceful manner … then there is no situation when that sort of violence would happen,” she told reporters, adding that police would be forced to take “necessary action” if they were met with force.
Pro-democracy protesters began their occupation of the university last week as part of a wider push for a citywide strike and class boycott, using it as a base to launch actions including a blockade of the nearby entrance to a key cross-harbor motorway tunnel. Police responded with an operation Sunday to clear the campus, sealing all routes in and out, and violent clashes erupted, with protesters using Molotov cocktails, catapults, and bows and arrows, and police firing rubber bullets, tear gas, and water cannons.
In dramatic scenes Monday night, tens of thousands of protesters converged on the campus to try to distract the police surrounding the university, and allow those inside to escape. Fierce clashes ensued, with police using flash grenades and arresting 68 people.
In total, about 1,100 people were arrested in protests Monday, on charges including rioting and possession of offensive weapons, while 280 were taken to hospital with injuries sustained in the unrest.
The protester who spoke to VICE News — a veteran of pro-democracy protests in the city since the so-called “Umbrella Revolution” of 2014 — said he and others had been trapped on the campus since the police blockade began on Sunday. They had broken into a professor’s office, which they were treating as a safe house, while they hunted for escape routes from the campus, desperate to avoid arrest.
The man, who worked as a freelance tutor, said he believed that the high-profile standoff at PolyU would only galvanize the protest movement and encourage more support for the cause. He said many of the protesters who escaped the campus were assisted by sympathetic members of the public, such as the drivers who picked up activists as they emerged from the tunnels to drive them elsewhere in the city.
“After the PolyU case, the whole movement will sustain itself even longer, because the government and police are drawing more people to become involved,” he said.
He said his plan now is to lie low for a couple of days, avoid the PolyU area, cut his hair, and dispose of the clothes he wore at the occupation. But he also plans to take part in renewed protests this weekend. “We are all fighting for a better Hong Kong,” he said.
Cover: A demonstrator throws a petrol bomb at police near the Hong Kong Polytechnic University in Kowloon district on Nov. 18, 2019. (Kyodo via AP Images) ==Kyodo