By Yan Zhao and Catherine Lai
Hong Kong authorities ordered schools and universities closed on Thursday as protesters challenging China’s rule brought parts of the city to a near standstill by barricading roads and disrupting public transport links.
Six months of anti-government political action have morphed from peaceful mass rallies into a so-called “blossom everywhere” campaign of violent hit-and-run confrontations with police by groups of black-clad protesters.
Key arterial roads were cut by brick and bamboo barricades, a cross-harbour tunnel was closed, and metro stations and bus services suspended – leaving many of the city’s 7.5 million people struggling to get to work.
Authorities ordered schools and universities to close until next week, while hospitals deferred non-emergency operations.
The government urged employers to be flexible with workers trapped in the gridlock.
Of those who made it to work, some joined lunchtime rallies across the city – including in the city’s financial hub – part of an increasingly emboldened white-collar support base for the protest movement.
Shouting “Fight for Freedom, Stand with Hong Kong”, thousands of office workers blocked roads through Central district as broad-based strike entered its fourth day.
“A lot of young people have been hurt… so we have to come out,” a legal worker who only gave her surname as Chan told AFP.
“They have sacrificed too much for us, so Hongkongers must come out.”
The protests began in June as a kickback against an attempt by the city’s Beijing-backed government to hustle through an extradition bill.
The bill was eventually shelved, but demonstrations have snowballed into a wider demand for democracy by protesters who fear the city’s unique freedoms are being hacked back by Beijing.
Rubber bullets vs arrows
Violence has intensified this week across the financial hub, leaving several people badly hurt, stretching police resources and hammering the transport network.
The first volleys of tear gas were fired early Thursday by police near the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, as a call went out for protesters to mass at the campus.
In a Facebook post, police accused “rioters” of shooting “arrows at several police officers who were patrolling” near the Polytechnic.
Students are using a novel arsenal of weapons to defend themselves and attack police, from giant makeshift catapults to bow and arrows looted from sports departments. They have also used tennis rackets to volley tear gas canisters back at police.
“Urgent! Poly is in a battle! Need people! Need supplies!” a post said on LIHKG – an online forum widely used by the largely leaderless movement as the campus became a focal point for Thursday’s action.
Protesters built brick walls and barricades with cement and mortar, preparing for an expected police advance later in the day.
“I’m looking forward to the police coming,” said a black-clad protester who gave his name as Ah Fai.
“We’re not causing the problems, the troubles stem from the government.”
Hong Kong is a city bitterly divided, with scuffles between police and protesters as well as pro- and anti-Beijing civilians increasingly violent and frequent.
The government said nearly 70 people were hospitalised on Wednesday – two in a critical condition, including a 70-year-old man hit by a brick as he tried to clear a roadblock.
Protesters are also calling for accountability for Hong Kong’s police force, which is accused of heavy-handed tactics and widespread abuses.
Hong Kong’s government has so far refused to cede more ground since binning the extradition bill and staunchly defends the police response to the crisis.
Lawmaker Starry Lee, of the city’s biggest pro-Beijing party, urged the government to deploy auxiliary police officers to relieve strain on the embattled force.
The part-time volunteer force of civilians and ex-officers is usually used to direct traffic and control crowds at major outdoor sports or entertainment events.
Beijing – facing the most serious challenge to its authority since the 1997 handover of the city from British rule – has taken an uncompromising line in step with the mounting violence.
Rhetoric spilt from Chinese state-media on Thursday with a Global Times front-page headline reading “Mobs turn campuses into Syria-like war zone” and the China Daily accusing protesters of turning universities into “revolutionary bases”.
A commentary in the Communist Party mouthpiece, the People’s Daily, said strong measures were required to contain and the extinguish the violence
“If you stand by when seeing a fire, it will burn everything. The best way is to put out the fire decisively before it spreads,” the newspaper said.
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