A 20-year-old man has been sentenced to a training centre for his participation in a riot linked to the police siege of the Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU) during the 2019 protests and unrest. The judge said the case reflected how young people were easily swayed by peers or netizens.

District Court
District Court. Photo: Candice Chau/HKFP.

Joe Wu appeared in front of District Judge Stanley Chan on Monday for sentencing. The Hong Kong Metropolitan University nursing student had earlier pleaded guilty to participating in a riot in Yau Ma Tei on November 18, 2019, when he was 17.

Training centres are an alternative to imprisonment for offenders aged 14 to 20. Wu will be detained for at least six months, while the maximum detention length is capped at three years, subject to his conduct.

On that day, demonstrators had rallied across Kowloon in support of protesters encircled by police at PolyU. Protesters and police were at the time engaged in an almost two-week-long stand off at the university campus. The siege led to the hospitalisation of over 300 people and the arrest of more than 1,300.

In the written reasons for sentencing, Chan said November 2019 was a “dark ice age when unprecedented, serious unrest took place in Hong Kong society,” citing the riots at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and PolyU that month.

“Violence seemed to have replaced the rule of law, as groups of young people madly engaged in violent acts that were incomprehensible to several generations of Hongkongers. The thugs were lawless, making people feel that the Pearl of the Orient was in decline,” Chan said.

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A protest scene on November 18, 2019. File photo: Benjamin Yuen/United Social Press.

The judge said “political [influence] peddlers” and “riot advocates” had instigated a large group of young people – who blindly followed others’ instructions without knowing their underlying intentions – to attempt to “save those who occupied PolyU.”

“These deceptive strategies were put into action by a surprising amount of people, who were left caught in the battlefield and became cannon fodder,” Chan added.

The judge also wrote that there were “people behind the scenes” who prepared a large amount of petrol bombs and other hard objects, with which rioters attacked the police.

Chan said police estimated that around 250 petrol bombs had been thrown by protesters in the hour leading up to Wu’s arrest, adding that “seemed to be an understatement from footage.”

But the defendant was not found with any offensive weapons when he was arrested. Chan also said there was no evidence linking Wu to the injuries of four officers that night, nor that he had been involved in handling petrol bombs.

‘Swayed by peers’

The judge cited two mitigation letters written by the defendant.

In the first letter, Wu said he believed, after reflection, that “to change or help society does not necessarily require participation in social movements.”

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Stanley Chan. File photo: Judiciary.

Chan said: “It is a pity that [Wu] still saw the series of riots as what he called ‘social movements.’ Speaking from any perspective, what happened then were thorough, organised acts of social disturbances and violence. It was unclear if it was [Wu]’s biased listening of opinions, misunderstanding or wrongful judgment.”

Wu changed his wording on the 2019 protests and unrest in the second mitigation letter written on March 19 – his 10th day of detention after entering his guilty plea. “The black riots in 2019 undoubtedly affected many people… Violence not only sabotaged the peace in society, but also impacted national security,” he said.

The judge said the case was “another demonstration of a young person who was pure, with ideals and no criminal record, committing an offence out of impulse and being swayed by their peers.”

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The clash between protesters and police at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University. File photo: May James.

Chan added that the case also showed “how easily young people can be affected by their peers, netizens or who could be described as cyber warriors.”

He said people on the internet could be terrible and sly, and could be from anywhere in the world.

‘Hidden hand’

The judge said the defence had earlier told the court that Wu was willing to disclose details of the person who gave him a ride to the protest on the day of the incident.

Chan said he believed it was “fair” for Wu to expose the person, “otherwise the hidden hand would be allowed to evade the law.”

Chan then said he would not further delay Wu’s sentence and could only have faith that the defendant would do as he promised, as Wu would turn 21 by the end of July and become ineligible for a training centre order.

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Peter Lee is a reporter for HKFP. He was previously a freelance journalist at Initium, covering political and court news. He holds a Global Communication bachelor degree from CUHK.