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The ‘battle’ for HKU

This is obviously a very subjective account of what seemed at the time a fast-moving and sometimes dangerous event. There will be people to whom I did not speak just because I was not near them at the time.

The 2019 protest movement in Hong Kong had been going on for about seven months before it seriously started to impact the university campuses. In hindsight it was remarkable that it took this long. The trigger, I suppose, was the death of an HKUST student who had fallen from a multi-storey carpark, possibly in an attempt to evade the police. He died on the morning of Friday 8th, just (as it happens) as I was going to hospital for surgery on my knee. The first real outbreak of violence in a university was on the UST campus later on that Friday as protestors vandalised businesses with links to Mainland China and the residence of the university’s President. Over the weekend there were protests all over Hong Kong. The protestors called for a city-wide strike for Monday. and the police entered at least three university premises – HKU, PolyU and CUHK early on Monday to arrest alleged rioters. This created a very tense situation and tear gas was fired into CUHK and one canister fell onto HKU’s campus.

As I said, on Friday I was admitted to Glengeagles Hospital for an operation to repair damage in my left knee. I was released from hospital on Saturday afternoon into Adeline’s care. My engagement with the protest really started on Monday morning. I caught the bus into work, which almost immediately got snarled in traffic, we sat there for a long time going nowhere. And while we sat there the news came through that a policeman had shot a protestor at point blank range at a small town in the east of Hong Kong Island. Despite the knee I decided to get out and walk the 2km or so into HKU. Stomping down the road with a trekking pole in one hand, my new PA, Jessica, caught me up about halfway into the University. I was talking on the phone to Adeline for a lot of the way down the road trying to explain what was going on, but everything was very unclear. The reason for the holdup became obvious as soon as we neared HKU, the police were turning all traffic back because black-clad protestors were throwing objects onto the road from the bridges that cross the road from the university campus. I did not know at this point that the police had entered campus, but that had probably been the trigger.

Vehicles attempting to negotiate Pok Fu Lam Road, on Monday 11th.

No-one from the university had announced anything, it was already past nine and it was clear to me that no teaching would happen that day. So unilaterally I cancelled all classes in the Faculty. The east end of the campus, where my office is, was quiet. There was no point in sitting in my office and so I took my pole and walked down towards the west end of campus. On the way I met Tim Bonebrake (actually heading to see me) and we walked together towards the developing chaos. Groups of students clad in black were ripping bricks out of University Street and arming themselves with whatever they could lay their hands on. I went up the brick removers and asked them to stop. Why, I asked them, would they destroy their university. The bricks had been intended to be thrown at the police officers who were walking slowly up the road from the west gate of the university. University street is about 100m above this road and a direct hit with even a small stone would have killed someone. So my job for the next hour was to persuade the protestors not to throw anything, and this was a success for long enough for our head of security to talk to the senior police officer and get his men to pull back. Gradually, very slowly, tension reduced and the protestors began to calm down. Traffic started to flow on the road again and the police left. Tim and I walked back and in a surreal turn of events we managed to hold a planned meeting to decide on the outcome of a senior hiring round. Another tour of campus followed. More pleading with protestors not to destroy the fabric of the university. Another twist occurred when against all odds nine out of ten of the University’s Deans turned up at the Faculty for lunch, which the office managed to obtain from a nearby Japanese restaurant.

Riot police on the road from West Gate into the campus, this was as far as they went – not quite on campus. In the top right corner you can see that Pok Fu Lam Road still has traffic flowing.

In the afternoon in an act of solidarity all the Deans walked through campus, an amazing sight as we swept through the middle of campus. This gave the few remaining protestors something to consider and few places to run! But there were only a small number of people around likely because the standoff at CUHK had really begun, and that at PolyU was starting. This meant that the afternoon was relatively calm, but we sent our staff home early to make sure they made it home at all. The journey home took a long time, as almost all buses had stopped running, the MTR was crowded and because I could not walk too far a taxi was needed for the last part of the journey back. And taxis were few and far between on that Monday evening.

It was probably in our favour that both CUHK and PloyU have locations close to major highways – the Tolo Highway and Central Tunnel respectively. The protestors converged in greater numbers at these sites leaving us with relatively few with which to deal. The main activity of the night was in and around Kowloon, but barricades were set up over roads outside most universities early in the morning of Tuesday. With the bus service cancelled I was given a lift by, my friend and colleague, Gray and we were able to drive right into campus. I had already spoken to Venus the Faculty Secretary and we agreed on a skeleton staff presence in the office, but to keep the office open.

The protestors made repeated attempts to block Pok Fu Lam Road. Their main approach seemed to be drag construction equipment into the road, but sometimes they would drop objects from the bridges. On at least two occasions they very nearly hit cars going past underneath. The Deans on campus spent a lot of time walking around the flashpoint talking to those who would listen. Generally the protestors were willing to listen and were always polite and respectful. While we were there things would quieten down, but things rapidly got more fraught after we left and we could not be everywhere.

Fu Hualing, Dean of Law at the University of Hong Kong (HKU), left, and Matthew Evans, Dean of Science, speak to demonstrators on a pedestrian footbridge during a protest at HKU in the Pokfulam district of Hong Kong, China, on Tuesday, Nov. 12, 2019. Hong Kong police fired tear gas in the city’s financial district on Tuesday afternoon for the second straight day after demonstrators blocked roads, disrupted the morning commute and clashed with police. Photographer: Justin Chin/Bloomberg

Hualing and I were asked to go and look at the MTR exit C bridge where a lot of black-clad protestors had congregated. We clambered down there round the internal barricades that had been set up, down the broken escalators and past the shattered entrance doors. There was maybe 40 or so protestors on the bridge, all quite riled up. They expected riot police to charge onto the bridge at any moment. Their mood was not helped by the presence of a dozen or so reporters, who also seemed to expect something. Drawing on what had worked earlier Hualing and I spoke to small groups of students trying slowly to defuse their anger, trying to empathise, but at the same time trying to get them to see that what they were doing was wrong.

Matthew Evans, Dean of Science at the University of Hong Kong (HKU), speaks to demonstrators on a pedestrian footbridge during a protest at HKU in the Pokfulam district of Hong Kong, China, on Tuesday, Nov. 12, 2019. Hong Kong police fired tear gas in the city’s financial district on Tuesday afternoon for the second straight day after demonstrators blocked roads, disrupted the morning commute and clashed with police. Photographer: Justin Chin/Bloomberg via Getty Images

But in this larger, and more militant group, our approach had little effect. So I tried a larger address, banging the trekking pole I was using to help me walk on the ceiling to get attention. I spoke directly to the group of students, and inadvertently was broadcast live on every TV channel in Hong Kong. I tried to offer them another way, an academic way to be heard, to say that this way was not going to work as all it offered was an endless cycle of violence, I tried to say that this could be the point where a solution to the problems of Hong Kong started to be found.

I really wanted them to come off that bridge, and I was scared. I realised that if the riot police did come onto the bridge the first person they would run into was the person with his back to them – me. After I finished speaking, to absolutely no avail, to the students, the press wanted to interview me. What I had said? and why? The reason why was simple ” I care about them, these are my students, the university’s students, they are just kids.”

The phrase ‘they are only kids’ resonated in Hong Kong and was widely quoted.

Hualing and I spent a lot of time on that bridge. In the end the police never came, but everyone was convinced that they would. Neither of us would leave without the other, and this prolonged our stay. Finally we did leave and retreated to our respective offices – in my case via one of the few remaining places to get something to eat – Subway. And so among other milestones of this day, I had my first ever Subway lunch.

In mid-afternoon the protestors set Exit C of the HKU MTR on fire. It was put out by the fire brigade in a few minutes but it made a big mess of the exit escalators. Then someone dropped a plastic chair off the bridge into the road, the chair hit a motorcyclist and it was only through luck that he wasn’t killed. This happened a few minutes after the Dean of Social Sciences (Will Hayward) left the bridge. As happened so often, while he was there he kept things quiet but as soon as he left tensions rapidly escalated.

The rest of the day was calmer on our campus, but had gone crazy at CUHK. Protestors had got hold of bows and arrows and javelins and were using these against the police. The University President tried to mediate and was teargassed for his trouble. Petrol bombs were thrown and a car was set on fire. The protestors there sent out messages seeking support from other universities and once again we were probably saved to some extent by actions that were happening elsewhere.

Gray had taken his car home but offered to come and get me. As it seemed too dangerous to drive on the road below the University he agreed to pick me and Jessica up from Pokfield Road bus station, to which there is a steep set of stairs from the university campus. But I didn’t feel like walking so many stairs and tried to bushwhack a route from the west end of Centennial Campus. This was not wise! Jessica was very good natured about being made to walk twice as far as needed, and to negotiate a roll of razor wire at one stage.

Bushwhacking through the forest

I arrived at the flat and was talking to Adeline just as our President called an urgent meeting. While many of the Deans had been working all day, most of senior management had not been seen once on campus. There was little interest in attending the meeting and many of us did not, preference being given (in my case) to a series of martinis.

The protestors made repeated attempts to block the road overnight but never quite succeeded. On Wednesday morning there were rather few of them at HKU, largely because the situation at CUHK had got very bad. There had been a standoff almost all night between the police and protestors, and in the end the protestors managed to hold out and the police withdrew from their blockade of the campus. Huge amounts of tear gas (1,500 rounds) and rubber bullets (1,300) had been fired. Gray took me into our campus again, and once again we were actually able to drive in via the west gate entrance. This time though there were large numbers of police vans parked along the road.

Police vehicles line Pok Fu Lam Road on the morning of 13th.

Clearly things were building up to some sort of standoff and the best option for both Gray and me was to get to onto campus and try to calm things down. When we arrived the protestors were very worked up by a large number of police who were on all the bridges over the road and along the entire length of the pavement. To say that the atmosphere was tense was a gross understatement. But the protestors, all of whom seemed to be our students, would still listen to us. We took our stand on University Street, black clad protestors all around with bricks, stones, eggs and masonry in their hands. But nothing, yet, had gone down onto the road. To me it was obvious what needed to be done, “I understand your anger, I believe you have reasons to be angry, but this is not the way to express it.” “Do you really want the blood of a policeman on your hands, on your conscience?” “To be honest there are more than just police down there, you could hit anyone.” The students’ reaction was interesting and naive. They wanted to know what right the police had to be there, “whether you like it or not, the police are constituted by HKSAR, and are obliged to try and maintain law and order. They are standing on the public highway.” But why here facing us? “They have reason to believe an offence might be committed.” How dare they think that, “they dare because you did commit offences yesterday, I know you did I was here and I saw people dressed like you throw things onto the road.” But that was yesterday, “So what? the record does not get wiped out overnight.” I learnt afterwards that the University was monitoring the social networks used by the protestors and these had been full of vitriol and desperation, calling for reinforcements to defend HKU. Apparently during the ten minutes or so of this debate this drifted down and became calm, even to the extent that protestors elsewhere in Hong Kong were annoyed with those at HKU for being indecisive. This is a coincidence only, and whether my arguments made much difference I do not really know. I hope that they might have, in some small way, had an impact. I do know that I have been asked by several people to recall what I had said in this speech, but I can only recall the outline not the detail.

After a bit of this, I agreed to go with the Hualing to go down and talk directly to the police on the bridge. The lifts were all broken and we had to walk five floors down to the bridge. The two senior police officers came to meet us, and they were scary – in full riot gear. But they were articulate, and sensible. They explained that they did not want a confrontation, that they were here simply to keep the road open, and that provided nothing illegal occurred then they would stay where they were. They even said that shouted insults were not illegal and that verbal abuse was fine, but a single projectile was not fine. These two people, at least, were very reasonable and rational. Which could not be said of the student who came up behind Hualing and me and shouted abuse in the policemen’s faces. Very luckily an associate professor from biology was there and was able to take the student away when I asked him to do so.

Hualing and I climbed back up the stairs and told the students what we had agreed with the police. They were, probably reasonably, skeptical. But agreed to not throw anything and just wait. And so we waited, gradually the tension slipped away, the occasional police officer would actually wave. The only thing that went down to the road were recordings of pig squeals and dog barks. After about an hour and a half you could see that the policemen were taking off their helmets. Tension rose again, when some senior officers arrived. But this was not the signal for action, it was the instruction to leave. The police all withdrew and climbed into their vans and were off. But just as the last one drove off, some hot-headed idiot grabbed an egg (thank goodness only an egg) and threw it down, it splattered on the roof of the departing van. The van stopped. I totally lost it with the protestor I ranted and railed and called him all the names I could think of, he actually cowered under this verbal onslaught. I was so very angry. By this action he could have brought the police onto campus. But they chose not to do so and after a while drove away.

After this no-one seemed to know what to do, protestors milled about. The Deans and a few other members of staff who were present wandered around. Will Hayward went to get me a coffee from the one place that remained open where one could be procured. The main interest of the protestors on campus was to sleep and most of them were doing exactly that in the Student Union. After lunch a meeting was called by the President and a few of us turned up – simply to be told what we already knew. It was quiet through the afternoon as the students slept the day away. Rumours of police activity on campus were rife, but all false.

Some of the stacks of provisions that arrived on campus from outside supporters.

Three of us Deans – Will Hayward, Hualing Fu and I continued to circulate, talking to the protestors that we met. Mainly converging on the bridge to MTR Exit C, which at this point was largely deserted. Many students had seen me on TV the previous day and were happy that someone wanted to take care of them. Not all students were Chinese, some were international students who wanted to support their colleagues. Perhaps this was commendable, it was certainly dangerous. The first evidence also emerged to me of the outside assistance being given to the protestors, during the afternoon many cars loaded with provisions arrived at MTR Exit A and all this was brought up ten flights of stairs onto University Street.

Hualing and Will debating protest philosophy with some students.

At the end of the afternoon refreshed from their rest, the protestors were emerging from the students union and arriving from outside campus. Something was going to happen. As I had been successful in talking to students before I was asked to go and talk to the meeting being held in the union. The discussion was being held in Cantonese but they listened to what I had to say politely. They were not though interested in a reasoned argument advocating non-violence. I warned them that any provocative acts would be likely to bring the police onto campus. They heard me out then continued their debate in Cantonese. Clearly they rejected my pleas as the evening became progressively more intense as protestors fanned out across campus, started ripping things up and that evening they finally succeeded in blocking the roads.

Protestors finally succeed in blocking Pok Fu Lam and Bonham Roads on Wednesday night.

This was my time to leave. I felt that I had done all I could to help and could give no more, I was very tired and nursing a knee that had been operated on less than a week previously did not help. Some of my colleagues remained, some until after midnight. Eventually though they all withdrew. The evening of Wednesday 13th was probably the lowest point of the week for us all. Gray once again managed to get his car into campus and we took the long way round the University on the way home. I think I was in quite a state of exhaustion but Adeline took care of everything, including creating the cocktails!

The reports coming in via various newspapers and the WhatsApp groups that had been set up to help us all communicate suggested that things were getting serious at the HKU overnight, the entire campus seemed to be sealed off with barriers at the entrances and barricades on the roads. On top of this the situation at other universities, especially CUHK was even worse. One message received gives the general tone ‘CUHK is now almost all occupied by the hoodlums. We are evacuating everyone as quick as possible. They are building barricades to block entry onto campus. Our main concern is the safety of all, particularly staff/faculty who live on campus. Students are realising that they have been hijacked but are too weak and afraid to take any action. Definitely outside elements involved. One hostel is now occupied by 黑衣人,and used as HQ. Situation is red alert.’

I decided to simply head into campus as soon as I got up, I was told that the police were planning to descend at 6 and I wanted to be there to try and mediate if possible. I left without breakfast and had to give a taxi $100 for a $24 ride to Pokfield road from where I was able to take the forest path into the back of the campus. The campus was eerily quiet. I met two protestors manning a first aid and supply station, they told me that Centennial Campus was empty and that there was no-one at exit C. I eventually got word that the main body of people was at East Gate. It took a long time to get through the barriers that had been placed throughout campus. Every exit to the campus had been blocked with anything that came to hand. The protestors were saving the campus by destroying it. East Gate was indeed where the protestors had congregated, because they believed that the police were coming from that direction to clear the road. Eugenie Leung and the Provost Richard Wong were already there.

The barricade on Bonham Road just east of East Gate.

Eugenie was trying to negotiate with the protestors to allow the police to clear the barricade. For a while she had success and a promise that the protestors would do nothing except insult the police as long as they remained on the road and did not come onto campus. This was a very dodgy compromise as the two parties would have been just a metre or two apart. A flareup was almost inevitable.

I went down to look at the barricade, visible among the Stonehenge bricks were rather nasty caltraps. I challenged some students about these who claimed that they were to stop cars. I said that seemed unlikely given that the bricks would deter cars, it looked like they were designed to go into someone’s foot. Grabbing an empty box I started to pick them up, and to be fair a group of protestors started helping me and soon the nailed objects were cleared. It was while I was doing this that the PA of Ian Holliday came up to me and pressed into my hand a bag of bottles of saline eye-wash ‘it will help when you get tear-gassed’ she said. Not something I expected to need to think about as a Dean of Science!

The rather nasty home-made caltraps.

But mainly we waited. During the wait I was given some saline eye-wash by someone sent by one of the Vice-Presidents of HKU – needed in case of tear gas. I was also later given a gas mask by the protestors. Hualing arrived and we all just waited. Talking to the protestors it was clear that at least some of these were more radical than the ones we had talked to the previous day. Their talk was more of revenge, and how they hated the police their list of complaints against the police was long. they accused the police of many crimes from murder, to rape and sexual and physical abuse. Many of these complaints seemed to be expressed as ‘we know of..’ or ‘we have heard that..’ rather than first hand experience. Much of this was I suspect belief in rumour given colour by heightened emotional states. They also forgot that the protestors had killed one old man who got hit with a brick and had just a couple of days previously set another man on fire during an argument. This is not to say that the police were innocent, just that objectivity had disappeared.

We wait for hours, people started heading to work. A street cleaner began his shift and harangued passersby into helping him clear the road. Hualing and I asked the group of protestors nearest us if we could go and help them, we took a shrug as acquiescence. But this was seen as too much and we got roundly abused by the protestors behind the barricades, and Eugenie asked us to stop as we could be seen as opposing the protestors. And so we felt that we had to stop and gradually under pressure from the protestors so did the other people. The protestors quickly restored their barrier.

One of the more elaborate barricades – on Pok Fu Lam Road.

After this it seemed increasingly pointless to be present. The protestors were not willing to talk any longer. And so Hualing and I left. It was also time to find some food as both of us had missed breakfast to get to campus. I knew that the Subway was open at least as I had seen the guy who ran it come in over the East Gate barricade.

In the end the police never came that day, and the road was left blocked. I think that there was more to do elsewhere, and the authorities realised that rather few people were inconvenienced by the blocking of roads around HKU. We also had some in our ranks who had excellent contacts with the police and the highways agency, and they advocated a softly, softly approach, and their advice was heeded.

All Deans and senior management were called to an emergency meeting to be held in the Dental Hospital, which was conveniently offsite and outside the barricades. Lin, Hualing, Will, Chris and I met at my office and walked down to Lyttleton Road clambering over the barricade on the exit ramp. We just about managed to avoid slipping on the oil that had been liberally spread over the ramp below the barricade. The Dean of Dentistry arranged for provisions and this is where the plans were created to reclaim the campus. There was a lot of talk and one or two critical decisions were taken that were to help over the next few days. The general approach was to be a negotiation with the student union over a stepwise rollback of the barriers as we gradually took over the campus. The crucial first step though was to get some real security guards and when HKU wants something badly enough it can get it. With the contacts in the room the services of 200 real security guards was obtained, at considerable cost, for the very next day. The Big Uncles as they became known were invaluable. We also decided that the face-to-face teaching needed to end and that we would go online for the last two weeks and conduct online exams. At the time no-one had any idea how to do this, but we would figure it out later.

While the crisis meeting resulted in successful actions, this was more in spite of its organisation that because of it. A more badly run meeting would have been hard to find and it only go to where it did because of the efforts of a stalwart, patient few who steered it to a conclusion. And the meeting sucked up the attention of all Senior Management and Deans who were then unable to be on campus doing real work. At about 4pm, three of us caught each others’ eye and Will, Hualing and I got up and left. We had all been up a long time, we were all tired. We shook hands for some reason as we parted, and went our individual ways. Mine in search of, that rather rare commodity, a taxi back to the flat.

Meanwhile, many of the Faculty staff, including Gray, Venus and Jessica had gone down to Shek O and Cape d’Aguilar where the kick-off ceremony for the refurbishment of the marine centre was held. Complete with a barbecue of roast pork and the correct incantations and burning of incense. This event was apparently a success and I received several pictures through the day. It was good to know that normal activities were going on somewhere.

Gray and some other members of the Faculty and the building contractors dissecting a roast pig at the SWIMS kick-off ceremony.

It was slightly surreal, after a difficult day, to be invited out for a drink by Gray and a bunch of people from Biological Sciences. But CyberPort was very quiet, no-one would think of protesting there. And if they did no-one would notice!

The crisis meeting on the Friday was to be held at the President’s Lodge. Once again Gray offered to take me into the campus and we gave a lift to the Deans of Education and Engineering (Lin and Chris). We once more climbed into the back of campus via the Pokfield Road staircase. One of my biggest concerns throughout the protests on campus was the security of the science labs and I made a point every morning of walking round as many as possible. Today though we had some of our Big Uncles on duty outside the laboratories and it felt a lot more secure. The campus was getting increasingly overrun by the black-shirted protestors, and some had tried to do what they had done at CUHK and use the university vehicles. When they failed to do so, they placed some kind of bobby trap under the vehicle.

Crude bobby trap under the wheel of a HKU coach.

The main issues for the group to deal with were the police’s desire to clear the roads and a request from alumni to come and clear the campus. The first issue was legitimate, the other less so. The alumni’s request was basically about provoking a confrontation with the student protestors. It would have simply inflamed the situation and needed to be headed off – luckily it was and the alumni didn’t turn up, and Richard Wong was on stand-by to deflect them if they had. What took the day though was the negotiation with the student body about clearing the roads. This negotiation was concluded by early afternoon.

While this was going on, and being conducted by local members of staff, there was little action on campus. I went down to the bridge to exit C and had the entire bridge to myself most of the time. But abruptly about 2pm we were all called back. The agreement would have the three local Deans manning the three main flashpoint over the road. The police would allow the highways agency to clear the road without police presence. The students mounted their own immigration control, checking the ID cards of anyone coming onto campus, they were worried about infiltration by undercover police.

The start of the operation to clear Pok Fu Lam Road.

All proceeded as planned, no police along the road, Highways people only, relevant people on bridges. But just after the start of the work, a few radical protestors confronted the people clearing the road and forced them to leave. The previous negotiation had been rendered pointless and the agreement of the majority of the students overturned by the actions of a few diehards. By 3pm the clearance operation had been abandoned.

A group of more radical protestors stopping the barricade clearance.

The negotiations then had to start again, for endless hours this discussion went on. The patience of the three Deans who could speak Cantonese was remarkable. But we were in a better position than other universities which were effectively taken over completely by the protestors a circulated message conveys the impression at CUHK “I’m on CUHK campus right now. What is obviously is that most protesters are not NOT CUHK students. They are persons from elsewhere, they are masked and dressed in black (as the student protesters were in the past days) but they are armed to the teeth with molotov cocktails and weapons of various descriptions. The situation is very tense – a dramatic change from my campus visit 24 hours ago – and most students have now left. Very few ‘real students’ about now!!! Yet the persons manning the barricades, etc., who are they?! So, don’t come onto campus! It’s extremely volatile and most persons from CUHK – staff and students – have gone. Also, be careful of statements from ‘students’ in the press. Who gave the statement about the bridge being reopened this morning? People I have spoken to don’t know who they are. There are many persons on campus with their own agenda, and the ultimate outcome could be massive damage to the university infrastructure and university reputation! So, please share, it’s apparently the same at other campuses in Hong Kong…the campuses are full of outsiders looking to cause trouble, and no doubt they will! Oh, and as before, no communication from the University administration! Why, oh why, is it so difficult for them to send an email?” We at least retained control of the campus, we had our first shift of security staff in place and there had been no major violence. I went home at the end of the afternoon. Once again Adeline took care of everything after that, adrenaline buoyed you up while you were engaged but you paid the price soon afterwards.

Highways Agency vehicles starting the clearance operation on Pok Fu Lam road.

These latest negotiations arrived at a similar deal. The roads were to be cleared through the night by Highways Agency staff only, the only difference is that we were all asked to be there to protect the operation and witness what occurred. So we reconvened on the Pok Fu Lam Road at 10pm. Lin and I were the first ones there, it was our first time down on the road, the barricades were spectacular piles of street furniture and construction materials. A few people wandered around apparently sightseeing. Gradually a group of the usual suspects gathered. The highways people did arrive just after 10pm and started demolishing the first barricade. The executive of the students’ union walked up, all was calm. The barricade was gradually being demolished. But then just like in the afternoon a small group of black-shirted, masked protestors rushed up and shouted at the highways gang. Nothing could be done to stop them. The workers were not going to stand up to them and they left, after putting some of the barricade back. And then all the students cheered. It was another low moment, the operation had failed twice in the one day. It was clear that the students’ democratic process could not deliver an outcome. The radical element would always triumph as they were willing to resort to a level of escalation that others could not match. Some sort of confrontation was going to be inevitable soon.

Just before the radical protestors arrived on Friday night.

While we had been having our own issues at Pok Fu Lam other universities had been hit much harder. Friday did see the withdrawal of the protestors from CUHK, but they largely withdrew to the new focus of conflict – PolyU. Close the Central Tunnel across Victoria Harbour PolyU was an obvious target, toll booths in the tunnel had been set on fire and there had been major hostilities between police and protestors. Unfortunately for the protestors it was also a site that the police could effectively cut off and besiege and that is exactly what ended up happening.

Saturday 16th was the day that I spent the least time on the campus, but it was momentous. A meeting was called by the President for noon but I opted out of participating. Adeline and I needed to get some basic domestic chores done – simple things like grocery shopping, and frankly just trying to see one another. Adeline went off to the airport to catch a flight to Australia as she had a job interview, for which the previous week had been extremely poor preparation. I did come to the campus around 2pm, once again clambering up, and then down, the steep stair case from Pokfield Road. All the exercise had taken its toll on my recovering knee and I now walked with two poles. What was becoming clear on campus was that the Big Uncles were having an effect, we now controlled the access points even though many still had barricades. But even the barriers had been removed in some places and access was slowly improving. Importantly this was being achieved without conflict.

There had been a call from a candidate standing in the elections for the local District Council for a working party to ‘reclaim Pok Fu Lam Road’, supported and promoted by a pro-Beijing group this call was getting a lot of traction on social media. It seemed to some that the main objective of this group was to provoke confrontation with the protestors which would inevitably lead to the police being called to intervene. Today though instead of being encouraged to go and talk to protesting students we were expressly forbidden from doing so. This was due to a concern about having a conflict of interest in any future disciplinary hearing. And so it seemed to me that there was little that any of us could do.

The blue-ribboners or concerned local citizens arrived on Pok Fu Lam Road at 3pm and started to clear the smaller items west of the barricade.

A group of local citizens gather to reclaim the road.

As soon as the group came close the bridge crossing the road from exit C of the MTR they came in range of the missiles of the protestors one hot-headed black-shirt flung a Molotov Cocktail which burst among the blue-ribboners. I wonder if this would have happened if those of us who had been talking to students over the last few days had been there.

A bucket of Molotov Cocktails ready for action.

This single act resulted in the blue-ribboners attempting to get onto the bridge to engage directly with the protestors. A quick intervention from Chris who was still on campus meant that the protestors were calmed down. The security team came down and physically blocked the way onto campus, physically separating the protestors and the blue-ribboners. Through all of this I had been going home and arrived to read a long series of messages describing what had happened, by about 3:45 the situation was calm again. An hour later the Highways Agency turned up and quite quickly cleared the remainder of the road and suddenly traffic was flowing again. There were a couple of flurries and the police did turn up to protect the clearance operation, but there was no direct engagement and they wisely left without going under the bridges so as not to give the protestors standing there any excuses for target practice. But sadly this message did not get to all units. Our local platoon had been sensible and restrained, but one from out of the area heard that the road was clear and as they were heading to Kowloon decided to take the quicker route along Pok Fu Lam Road. They were spotted by protestors and someone threw a stone at them.

Understandably the police leapt out of their vans and a stand-off resulted. A few members of staff were present and they managed to intervene, to start talking with the police on the one hand and the protestors on the other. At one point Hualing was sitting on the balustrade of the west gate road with protestors behind him and armed police in front of him, literally putting himself between them. It was a tense couple of hours but eventually everyone walked away.

Heroics from the Dean of Law.

This incident could very easily have led to a major confrontation. The police platoon involved did not know the area and were less well informed about the situation than our local force. Some of the protestors were not our students and a few were very agitated. There was at least one school age student there armed with both a Molotov Cocktail and a quite a serviceable slingshot. Another student mimicked the sound of a rubber bullet being fired while a second person pretend to be hit by one, ratcheting the tension up higher. There is no doubt that the police made a mistake coming down the road so soon after it had opened, and putting themselves in harms way. There is little doubt that the protestors were very upset about what could happen and what had happened in other parts of Hong Kong. It is my view that it is only due to the intervention of some of my colleagues that this tense time passed off as quietly as it did.

It was after this, probably the most dangerous part of the whole week, that Sunday dawned. I had been unable to get into campus during the standoff with police because I had become rather immobile with my knee, so I decided to pre-empt things and to make my way to my offices early and if necessary stay there until everything was over. During the night one of my senior chemistry professors had an altercation with protestors who had rebuilt a barricade at the Lyttleton road entrance and almost started a small riot of his own by refusing to show his ID to a student. As my office is near the Chemistry Department I could easily see him if he was still around. I came in via the western side of campus, climbing over the new barricade on Lyttleton Road with some help from an ex-employee of the university who was happy to assist as she went on her morning walk to The Peak.

The Lyttleton Road entrance at 7am on Sunday.

I walked what had turned into my usual path around the main science buildings, nothing was damaged and the campus was almost eerily quiet. There were even wild boars along University Drive. This absence of people gave us the window we needed to get our security guards to man the entrances and check ID, to dismantle the barricades and remove the debris off campus. The combined strengths of the Estates staff and the Big Uncles rather quickly broke down all the barricades and suddenly the campus was open again.

The Lyttleton Road entrance at 9:30 on Sunday.

For the first time we seemed to have momentum and we pushed our luck by moving down onto the bridges crossing Pok Fu Lam Road and got combinations of security staff and academic staff onto the bridges while they were sealed off on the campus side. As I has spent so long there, I went to Exit C once again.

The bridge to Exit C deserted but for the weapons of protestors, and three Deans.

Just like the barricades at the entrances the security and estates staff were able to remove the dangerous materials from the bridges very quickly. By midday the campus was looking much more familiar. Everyone on campus congregated in the Social Science tower and shared several lunches which had arrived with various teams.

Physically blocking the entrances to the MTR station bridges meant that students could not use them but also that they felt that police could not storm them.

Later in the afternoon dumper trucks arrived and carted off the barricade debris. The battle was effectively over and we had emerged intact.

Some of our new Big Uncles on duty outside East Gate.

But our success was made a less happy occasion by the fact that at the same time the PolyU siege was beginning and there were pitched battles between protestors trapped there and police. This certainly made our job easier, we heard that maybe 30 HKU students were trapped inside PolyU. These would have very likely been some of the more radical elements. The PolyU siege was to go on for nearly two weeks and result in 1200 arrests. This could have been HKU but was not, a combination of luck and good decisions made us safe. A small number of key people were the ones who saved the University, they know who they are.

The view from the Faculty of Social Science’s Tower on Sunday 17th November.

One final, rather strange, moment occurred early the week after the occupation ended. We had begun to bring the most reliable staff back onto campus on Monday, the Faculty Office and most departmental offices were open. We even had a delivery of the gases that keep our supercooled magnets cold (this had run dangerously low and urgently needed to be replenished lest the magnets overheat and get damaged). All those involved were asked by the President to come to a meeting which was expanded by some figures who had been absent previously. There seemed less point than ever for this meeting, but one of my colleagues leant over and whispered ‘there are representatives of at least three secret services here, and quietly he pointed out the Chinese, US and British agents.’ This was sufficiently disturbing for me to avoid saying anything at all and escape as soon as possible. This was genuinely the first time I had seen any of them and they seemed to be attempting to catch up with events more than anything else.