Riot police and students clashed at Hong Kong’s oldest university in the early hours of Monday as students demanded an explanation for a schoolmate’s arrest.

At around 1:30am, over a hundred University of Hong Kong (HKU) students gathered on Pok Fu Lam Road outside a cluster of residential halls. The students blocked a police van from leaving and urged officers to disclose details about the arrestee.

Riot police reinforcements used batons and pepper spray to push students on the road back onto the pavement. Later, officers used pepper spray again after some students chased after a departing police vehicle and kicked it.

Police confirmed to HKFP that it received reports of vandalism at one of the exits of HKU MTR station at 1:00am and, soon afterwards, officers arrested a man on suspicion of criminal damage.

Police arrest an HKU student for criminal damage. Photo: Edy Jeh.

Edy Jeh, acting external vice-chairperson of the Suen Chi Sun Hall Students’ Association, told HKFP that she witnessed the arrest.

“The student was walking near the entrance of the student village, when a police van approached and officers charged out of it. There were four uniformed officers pinning him to the ground,” she said.

The student was wearing black at the time, but Jeh said she did not see the student committing any criminal acts.

Riot police arrive outside the Jockey Club Student Village II, a cluster of HKU residential halls. Photo: Holmes Chan/HKFP.

After the arrest, the student was immediately taken to the Western Police Station, but another police van that stayed behind was mobbed by a growing crowd of angry students.

At least two residential hall wardens and an HKU site manager tried to calm the crowd. Police later told students that the arrest was over criminal damage.

a residential hall warden tries to tell HKU students to disperse. Photo: Holmes Chan/HKFP.

During the standoff, police used pepper spray against students and ordered them to get off the road. Multiple students, journalists, and a student journalist from the campus publication Undergrad were affected by the chemical agent.

Police tried to retreat at around 2:00am but some students chased after a police van and kicked its rear. Riot police then emerged from the vehicle and fired pepper spray at the fleeing students. Officers also pointed a rubber bullet firearm and a tear gas launchers at crowds.

Police pepper spray students as they flee. Photo: Holmes Chan/HKFP.

HKU Dean of Student Affairs Eugenie Leung, who tried to mediate between students and the police, said she and a residential hall warden would go to the police station to check up on the arrested student. She declined to comment when asked about police use of force.

Kaimin Shih, an HKU professor and residential hall warden, told HKFP he could not comment on whether police were right to use force against students as he was “not a legal expert.”

The HKU Jockey Club Student Village 2, which contains multiple residential halls. Photo: Holmes Chan/HKFP.

“We hope everything can be minimised without violence,” he added. “If you ask me whether I am satisfied with the consequences like this? No. I hope there was no confrontation.”

Shih promised students in a closed-door meeting that there will be a public forum over the incident, and a mass email will be sent to students to clarify the situation.

Police point a less-lethal firearm at fleeing students. Photo: Holmes Chan/HKFP.

However, Jeh said that she would press HKU Vice-Chancellor Zhang Xiang for a response. She said riot police had previously entered the same student village last month – an incident that was ignored by the school’s management.

Pro-democracy lawmaker Ted Hui, who was also present at the scene, told HKFP that the use of force was “excessive” and that it was understandable for the students to become agitated.

Riot police outside St. John’s College. Photo: Holmes Chan/HKFP.

“The area around a university campus is very sensitive, and the vicinity of a residential hall is basically the same as the campus,” Hui said. “The police are creating a climate of white terror in the university.”

HKFP has reached out to HKU for comment.

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Holmes Chan

Holmes Chan is a reporter at Hong Kong Free Press. He covers local news with a focus on law, politics, and social movements. He studied law and literature at the University of Hong Kong.