The weekly | How a Hong Kong campus became a fire battlefield

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Producer / Director Andréa Schmidt

Protesters holding smartphones and wearing masks took to the streets. The armed riot police fired water cannons and tear gas to reaffirm authority. For months, the two sides faced each other in a series of increasingly violent clashes at the Polytechnic University of Hong Kong.

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The PolyU siege last November was the climax of intense clashes between Hong Kong police, who had exhausted their tolerance for dissent, and protesters who refused to give up their freedoms without fighting.

Watch the video from the front lines of PolyU when the area was transformed into an urban battlefield. Listen to the masked protesters, too afraid to speak openly, describe on camera how they barricaded themselves inside university buildings and desperately tried to escape days after the riot police raided the school.

Reporters and editors from the Hong Kong and Beijing agencies of the New York Times collaborated with members of our visual investigation team to reconstruct the chaotic events that led to the PolyU siege for this episode of "The Weekly". They include Keith Bradsher, the head of the Shanghai department, who used to be the head of the department in Hong Kong; Javier C. Hernández, correspondent in Beijing; Barbara Marcolini the visual investigations team; Tiffany May, who works in the Hong Kong office; Edward Wong, a diplomatic and international correspondent in Washington who previously served as head of the Beijing agency; and Gillian Wong, Editor of The Times in China in Hong Kong.

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A large part of Hong Kong society supports the protests, but young people living in the territory are the ones who lead the movement and go to the front lines daily. Many of them grew up in Hong Kong after the 1997 transfer and observed the rule of law, freedom of expression and other rights that they thought were guaranteed by Hong Kong's semi-autonomous status slowly eroded by the Communist Party regime.

President Xi Jinping is the most authoritarian leader to govern China since Mao, and the restrictions he has imposed across the continent are also felt in Hong Kong. As the protests intensified, he demonstrated that he has no intention of giving in to the protesters or withdrawing his support for the much-criticized chief executive of the territory, Carrie Lam.

Protesters have now become as focused on police brutality as they are on broader political demands. The police became more vigorous in an attempt to stop the protests, and this led to more demonstrations against the police, forming a cycle that was difficult to break.

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The protests started peacefullybut got more contentious and quickly divided and disturbed the city. It was reported that nearly one in seven Hong Kong residents protested the extradition law. When the police cracked down, some of the protesters became increasingly aggressive and were accused of riots – a crime that is punishable by up to 10 years in prison. Many of the protesters wore masks to protect themselves from pepper spray and tear gas and to hide their identities from authorities. Protesters who agreed to speak to "The Weekly" about their experiences did so only if they were not identified.

Hong Kong Polytechnic University, the site of the most violent violence between police and protesters, opened for two weeks after the siege, but closed again two weeks later. Other schools and universities in the city were also closed until March, in a move to help contain the coronavirus. PolyU will hold classes online.

The protest movement persists, but it has been hit. Tens of thousands of protesters marched on New Year's Day at a mass rally that lasted just 20 minutes before the police fired tear gas to end it. Since then, protesters like "Wallace", the 19-year-old student you met in our episode, have backed off when the city grapples with the possibility of a coronavirus outbreak. Still, the protesters remain in conflict with the police and express their dissatisfaction with the way the government deals with the potential health crisis. A new union of hospital workers formed from the protest movement went on strike, demanding that Hong Kong leaders do more to contain the coronavirus, including a ban on all entries from mainland China.

President Xi Jinping of China asked for stability in Hong Kong during the New Year's speech. Since then, he has undergone new public scrutiny about the government's response to the Wuhan coronavirus outbreak, another crisis that has threatened the country's stability.

Carrie Lam, Hong Kong Executive Director, is again the target of much public anger, this time with the government's treatment of the coronavirus outbreak elsewhere in mainland China. Residents are upset by the scarcity of protective masks in Hong Kong and Lam. reluctance to implement stricter controls on mainland China travel.

Senior Editors Dan Barry, Liz O. Baylen and Liz Day
Production supervisor Singeli Agnew
Director of photography Victor Tadashi Suarez
Video editor Pierre Takal
Senior Coordinator Producer Sameen Amin
Photographer Lam Fei Yak
Associate producer Abdulai Bah
Associate Producer Wesley Harris, Valerie Shenkman
File Producer Gini Richards
Associate File Producer Timothy Duffy
Field producers Sharon Yeung
Additional reports Ezra Cheung, K.K. Rebecca Lai, Elaine Yu and Haley Willis

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