Catapult Gets a Rest as Hong Kong Students Weigh Protest Tactics

(Bloomberg) -- About an hour before sundown on Friday in Hong Kong, a few dozen anti-government protesters huddled on the bridge over the Tolo Highway, trying to decide what to do next.

For a week, they’d blockaded the bridge, keeping police forces off the adjacent Chinese University of Hong Kong campus. They set up an impromptu security checkpoint for pedestrians and stopped traffic on the thoroughfare below. At one point, the standoff got so intense that the vice-chancellor of the university was caught in the tear gas.

Catapult Gets a Rest as Hong Kong Students Weigh Protest Tactics

But by the end of the week, the police had gone, passing the baton to university authorities. One lane of traffic in each direction had been re-opened in a show of good faith. Passers-by crossed the bridge unmolested. Classes were canceled and plenty of people had gone home, or on to the next protest. By Saturday, the protesters appeared to have abandoned the campus, according to a university spokesman.

“Most of the people who were here on Monday, they’ve left to support another district’s activities,” said a 20-year-old CUHK student who gave his name as Wong. He’d been on the bridge all week, he said, and didn’t plan to leave. “We will stay here to prepare, if the police come back again, or if a situation happens suddenly.”

Catapult Gets a Rest as Hong Kong Students Weigh Protest Tactics

For months, Hong Kong’s anti-government protesters have moved their demonstrations around the city in an effort to, in the words of Bruce Lee, “be like water.” The movement, it seemed, had learned from the ultimately unsuccessful “Occupy” efforts of 2014, which took over key areas in several neighborhoods, closing streets to traffic for more than two months. Eventually, the protests were cleared without any concessions from the government.

The current demonstrations have also yet to win concessions from the government, and this week marked a change in tactics. The protests moved from the weekends to the week. In an effort to shut down roads and thoroughfares, effectively creating a general strike, protesters gathered at several of Hong Kong’s biggest universities. In the case of CUHK, the campus became a staging ground to shut down Tolo Highway. Closer to the center of the city, activists used Polytechnic University as home base for an assault on a critical cross-harbor tunnel.

Catapult Gets a Rest as Hong Kong Students Weigh Protest Tactics

In keeping with the months-long protest movement, this strategy could also turn on a dime. Two days ago, CUHK was under siege. It was believed that police wanted to come onto the campus; at the same time, activists from elsewhere in the city had descended, setting up an ad hoc canteen and assembling petrol bombs, bows and arrows, and at least one catapult made of bamboo.

Not every student welcomed the influx. “On Tuesday night, most of the protesters were CUHK students, because it was a defense against the police,” said Ben Wan Yuk-kwan, the financial secretary of the CU student government. “But after the battle, I think some of the outsiders came in,” he said. “They said they want to help” but “I think we have been hijacked. The CUHK students are being hijacked.”

Catapult Gets a Rest as Hong Kong Students Weigh Protest Tactics

In an open letter to the CUHK campus, Vice-Chancellor Rocky Tuan attributed vandalism to outsiders, not university students. “A large number of illegal incidents occurred on the campus, including arson, digging up bricks, school buses and work vehicles have been misused and teaching buildings, the canteen and dormitories have been damaged or occupied,” he wrote. “Some people have transported materials into the university in order to make a large number of petrol bombs.”

Catapult Gets a Rest as Hong Kong Students Weigh Protest Tactics

He told everyone to “leave as soon as possible,” so that the college could begin to clean up and repair the campus. And, he added, “if the university cannot continue to fulfill its basic mission, we will have to seek help from the relevant government departments in order to end the present crisis.”

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

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