By Sebastian Skov Andersen and Thomas Chan

A year ago, at the campus turned fortress of the Polytechnic University of Hong Kong (PolyU), student protesters clashed for two weeks with riot police in a stand-off that made headlines worldwide. Thousands of young protesters, many under 18, barricaded themselves within the university’s walls surrounded by police at all exits. 

Some patrolled the outskirts, hurling fire bombs and shooting arrows at riot police outside, who responded with tear gas, water cannons and pepper bullets and arrested anyone who tried to escape. Others tended the injured or figured out arrangements for those who wished to escape. Many made desperate attempts to do so, climbing down manholes and through sewers, faking severe injuries, or rappelling down the walls by rope. 

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Photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

When the hardiest frontliners eventually surrendered to police after 16 days of intense battles, more than 300 people had been hospitalised and 1,300 arrested.  

The siege was seen as the climax of months of demonstrations and became a source of pride for protesters. For pro-democracy sympathisers, it was an example of how Hongkongers of all types came together – some fighting police head-on, others forming kilometer-long supply lines to aid those inside – in the struggle against a common enemy. 

PolyU security
Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

A year later the memory is dimming, and some fear the government may rewrite the siege’s history in the same way the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) did with the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989. Many protesters are wary about speaking of the events, uncertain of the legality of even reminiscing about them let along being associated with the siege. 

Civil servant

“The only time I feel that I can talk freely about the siege is when I am absolutely sure that my audience are those who I know personally, and who also share the same political views with me, so that I can speak freely… without worrying that I will be singled out, challenged or even have evidence of me speaking against the government,” said Trevor Tang, who was granted a pseudonym for fear of repercussions.

Tang, a civil servant, was worried he could be violating the national security law but was especially concerned about upsetting his employer. 

PolyU security
Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

At work, he keeps his views to himself for fear of being “doxxed,” reprimanded or even arrested, because his employer serves as an extended arm of the government. 

“I feel vulnerable and angry at the same time. It feels like I can no longer freely express myself. This is something I have never experienced in my entire life, and taking away people’s freedom of speech cannot be justified at all,” he told HKFP

Student frontliner

One student frontliner, who preferred to be known as “Caveman,” spent time inside the university during the siege’s first days. A chemistry student, he spent his hours producing fire bombs and other devices used to paralyse police armoured vehicles. He escaped by rope after a ricocheting rubber bullet struck his helmet and cracked it. 

PolyU protest
Protesters outside the Hong Kong Polytechnic University in Hong Kong on November 17, 2019. Photo: Studio Incendo.

“The siege is a testament to the loyalty and unity of the people of Hong Kong,” he said. “There were guys in suits and suitcases just tearing up bricks to throw, and it was at that point I realised that Hong Kong was really united in fighting for what’s right.”

“It may be a painful memory, but it’s also something we can be proud of,” he said. 

‘Caveman’ said the government was trying to suppress the memory of last year’s events, comparing it to Tiananmen Square. But he felt confident the memory would live on for years. The government was trying to “douse a fire with paper” and hence only making the movement stronger, he said. 

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Photo: Benjamin Yuen/United Social Press.

“None of us will ever forget it. We just keep our silence because we know it’s not time yet. The government is dead wrong thinking that we’re all scared to speak up now.” 

Frontline first-aider

Nelson Ng, a 29-year-old also using a pseudonym, roamed the streets outside campus for more than 30 hours, offering help to wounded escapees and anyone else who needed him. His memories are still vivid but he’s fearful that one day there will no longer be a truthful account of what happened at PolyU. 

“If I go back to the campus area now, I’ll recall everything vividly. I’ll even have flashbacks when I see photos or walk past the places I’ve been,” he said. “Many people are now avoiding the images because they don’t want to be triggered: to our generation, this experience is a scar”. 

PolyU protest
Protesters outside the Hong Kong Polytechnic University in Hong Kong on November 17, 2019. Photo: Studio Incendo.

“As we grow older, the next generation may not know what happened in 2019. It may either not be listed in history, or listed in a very distorted way. Future generations might not know what happened, or even get into trouble just by finding out.”

Ng feared the government was employing the “Tiananmen playbook”, downplaying the incident and rebranding it as a “reactionary riot” in hopes of obscuring its own role in the chaos and changing the narrative. 

YouTube video

The university campus, now under heavy guard, remains a site of great symbolism to many locals. A peaceful protester in his late twenties known as Mark Poon – not his real name – said he was uncertain whether it was legal even to discuss the siege.

But online, where he can remain anonymous, he shares feeds and videos or uses other ways of keeping the memories alive.  

PolyU security
Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

“If we discuss it openly, I think even without using laws, we’ll be silenced one way or another,” Poon told HKFP. “But if you simply take a picture of the fence around the campus, even without a caption, that will trigger the memories for those who still care. If you really want to erase our memories, then you might as well tear down the entire campus.”

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Hong Kong Free Press is a new, non-profit, English-language news source seeking to unite critical voices on local and national affairs. Free of charge and completely independent, HKFP arrives amid rising concerns over declining press freedom in Hong Kong and during an important time in the city’s constitutional development.