Humans of Hong Kong

Humans of Hong Kong

Translated version of feature stories and interviews by Stand News. 立場新聞專題、人訪的英文版本。

2019/12/4 - 17:16

The Siege of PolyU (I): Protesters' Great Escape on Foot

Humans of Hong Kong 為《立場新聞》新欄目,刊出由特約作者翻譯、英文版本的立場專題、人物專訪,方便國際讀者閱讀。

"Humans of Hong Kong" is a brand new column highlighting the English version of feature stories and interviews by Stand News.

 On 29 November, the Hong Kong Police Force lifted the siege of the Polytechnic University (PolyU).

The Siege of the Polytechnic University has been the most violent clash in the anti-extradition movement, which saw more than a thousand people arrested, as well as ferocious exchanges of tear gas and petrol bombs between the police and protesters respectively.


If we regard the period between the police’s offensive drive towards Chatham Road South on 16 November and the protesters’ last-ditch, large-scale attempt to break the blockade on 18 November, as the first half of the Siege of PolyU, the beginning of the second half ought to be the moment when secondary school headmasters and the former president of the Legislative Council, Jasper Tsang, went into the campus in a bid to appeal to the people to leave.

Here are the key words which capture the second half of the siege: surrounding, retreating, escaping.

Our Stand News reporters attempted to recover and chronicle the days and nights, the start and finish of the Siege of the Polytechnic University, with our first-hand observations, and multiple interviews with the escapees as well as those who helped the escapees.

Break down

The last coordinated attempt to break the police’s blockade took place at around 2pm on 18 November. A team of vanguards led the way. In less than half an hour’s time, they were forced back to campus by the police, and many were arrested. In the evening, people all around Hong Kong began protesting in their own area in a bid to draw away the police force besieging PolyU. Around Tsim Sha Tsui East and Jordan protesters engaged in fierce conflicts with the police, but they failed to achieve much. After that, the picture became  clear: the police were intending to blockade PolyU. It was almost impossible to either break the siege from within or rescue the trapped from outside.

On 18 Nov at around 8pm, some protesters tried to escape by abseiling down the footbridge in Z-Core, a spot far off from the main battlefield at the entrance. However, there were still plans to break the blockades at around 11pm. The last straw which broke most protesters’ will to fight their way out was when the former president of the legislative council, Jasper Tsang, and other universities headmasters arrived at PolyU to bring the underage protesters out, declaring that those who left with them would not be charged on the spot. One frontline protester recalled the moment when he was about to call on people to fight their way out, when Jasper Tsang turned up at the school entrance, around the corner.  

Whether that was part of the psychological game on the government’s side or not, the arrival of the headmasters and Jasper Tsang dissolved the protesters’ will to fight or defend the fort. The young students were now torn in a dilemma between leaving and staying. Those who were determined to stay warned them: “you are crossing the Rubicon line”, “One step out of the campus is an irrevocable step into prison for ten years.”, “What about the other protesters?” – these were spoken with a threatening undertone. However, the more common responses were sobbing and wailing - “I really cannot stand this anymore”, “I really want to go home”. At the end, one batch after another of secondary school students, hundreds of them, were led out of the campus by their headmasters. They walked and sobbed with their heads low as they crossed the police’s cordon line.

Photograph: Midnight (18 Nov) on Monday, the underage secondary school students were accompanied by their headmasters to leave PolyU.

Photograph: Midnight (18 Nov) on Monday, the underage secondary school students were accompanied by their headmasters to leave PolyU.

A young man was accompanied by his teacher, with tears in his eyes. The teacher told him: “It’s alright now.”

“No, it is not, many of our fellow protesters are still trapped inside!”

“I feel so guilty. Yesterday we stood guard together, united; tomorrow they will probably end up in detention.”

That was when people inside PolyU broke down psychologically. Most who remained were adults. They would be arrested once they left the campus from the main entrance. They were all preoccupied with the question: how to escape?

Abseiling down the footbridge 

C was one of the successful escapees from PolyU. In his recollection people started discussing various escape routes on campus. “There are countless routes to get out.” Abseiling down the footbridge was one of the most stunning co-ordinated escape operations that took place in the media’s limelight.
At around 8pm on 18 Nov, which was the second day of the siege, close to a hundred people climbed down ropes from a footbridge in Z-core to Chatham Road, escaping on motorcycles that were waiting on the road underneath. “I think that was a bit difficult. None of them had any experience in abseiling. If they lost grip of the rope, they might fall to death.”
“There is a photograph of someone abseiling down the bridge without putting gloves on. His palms were wounded so badly that I could not bear looking at them.”

For many this was a risk too high to take. There were reports that an escapee lost his balance, fell to the ground and broke his legs. Regardless, the police swiftly blocked this escape route. And now that abseiling down the bridge was no longer an option, people attempted to come up with a ground escape plan.  

Photograph: On 18 November, a protester tried to abseil down the footbridge. He fell to the ground and broke his legs. He was treated by first-aiders.

Photograph: On 18 November, a protester tried to abseil down the footbridge. He fell to the ground and broke his legs. He was treated by first-aiders.

Searching for a way out

On 19 November, the second day of the Siege, about a hundred people roamed around the campus aimlessly, looking disconcerted and disorientated, checking the photographs on their phones and the live updates about the campus frequently, or listening to voice messages. It was clear that they had contacts helping and waiting for them outside campus. Most of their escape plans were ultimately directed at Z-Core. 

“Once you get out of Z-Core, on the left is the Hong Kong Girl Guides Association and Wylie Court, on the right is Oi Man Estate.” K, who coordinated the rescue missions outside PolyU, explained.

The help from people outside the campus was crucial to any ground escape plan. K was responsible for contacting the “children” (a colloquial term for young protesters) inside the campus, as well as coordinating the efforts of volunteer “parents” (usually middle age people who are sympathetic to young protesters) and nearby residents outside the campus who helped to keep an eye on the police and destroy fences to create escape routes whenever the opportunity arose. However, as the operation scale grew larger, the level of risk went up. “Local residents who volunteered to to do reconnaissance on the area were arrested,” K said.

It was not an easy task to reach Z-Core. The first trial was to get over the footbridge from which people roped down. But the bridge was clogged up with all sorts of objects that had been used to form the defensive line. There were two ways to get over the bridge; either protesters could crawl their way over , with their chest touching the floor, or they could hurdle their way across the bridge  – which would easily expose them to the riot police monitoring from under the bridge. Once they detected unusual movements on the bridge, the police would direct their flashlights at them, shouting, “Get the hell out and surrender!”, “I can see you!” To add insult to injury, the fire sprinkler and alarm system had been working non-stop  ever since frontline protesters had set the footbridge ablaze, in order to stop the police from entering the campus through Z-Core in the early hours of Monday morning. The incessant ringing led everyone in the area around Z-core to feel continuously on edge. 

Photograph: The bridge heading towards Z-Core, the most popular ground escape route.

Photograph: The bridge heading towards Z-Core, the most popular ground escape route.

A batch of around 10 escapees tried to clamber their way over the bridge. Not even halfway over the bridge, they were spotted by the riot police. Greeted by a barrage of barrage of pepper spray balls, the hurried their way back to campus in fear – “this will not work! Head back!”. Meanwhile, a pair of male and female escapees managed to scramble their way across, with their faces and chests flatly touching the floor. What was normally a 2 minute journey to reach the other end of the bridge took them 20 minutes, during which the flashlights of riot police never stopped trying to expose their whereabouts.
Their plan was to get out via the backdoor in Z-Core, climb over the fences, go down a sewer tunnel, and make their way out in the direction of Ho Man Tin. However, they were greeted by police standing guard; officers were stationed on both sides of the building, and another was hidden in the bushes.

They had to crawl their way back to campus.

According to K, there were indeed other escape routes apart from Z-Core, Y and V, but the success rate was fairly low. Around 40% of the people who tried were caught. “Almost one in two would get arrested.”

C reckoned that this was a trap designed by the police. “They deliberately let the first batch out, in order to draw out the second and the third.” The police would let the first batch of people out, so as to make the rest believe that was the safe escape route; then, the police would round them all up.

A ‘spectre’ in their midst

Both abseiling down the bridge and finding an escape route on ground level proved to be unlikely ways out. Those seemingly safe escape routes being discussed were often swiftly leaked via Telegram and thus subsequently blocked by the police. Chances to escape seemed scarcer  by the minute. Meanwhile, people inside the campus were getting desperate. This was because of flying rumours of ‘spectres’ in their midst–– in other words, undercover police officers who were allegedly stalking the buildings in Z-Core. Stand News visited the area many times but found nothing. Y-Core was another site which was widely believed to be where the police made their rounds. There were also rumours that  undercover police had made arrests in T-Core. The most incredible anecdote described undercover police officers chasing protesters with iron bars on campus. Stand News learnt about it from two people on campus, who said their friends witnessed the whole process.

Stand News could not establish the authenticity of the anecdote regarding the police stalking the areas around the Z-Core buildings. Even if they were based on hearsay, these flying rumours added a psychological burden to the people trapped inside PolyU. People became increasingly distrustful of each other, as if everyone could turn out to be what they called a ‘spectre’”.

“They did not believe in each other’s humanity,” said T, who had travelled in and out of the campus multiple times because of his job, and had interacted with the people inside. He also served as a contact with the escapees. Since the siege, T said he could see a wild  desperation in the eyes of people inside campus.

“They locked their hearts up… I have never seen a person’s heart break from such a close distance.”

“Yet they are still longing to escape.”

It was the will and tenacity to survive and escape, which forced the trapped protesters to try an unbelievably dramatic escape route: the underground sewers.

Photograph: A sewer in PolyU

Photograph: A sewer in PolyU

Reporter: YP Lam 

(Original version: 【理大圍城日與夜.上】飛橋游繩防鬼影 被困者如何覓路逃生?