By Stanley James & Moxy Ying
HONG KONG – Hong Kong police and protesters hardened their battle lines over the weekend as violent clashes showed no signs of abating, leaving the city bracing for a second week of upheaval that risks disrupting pending elections.
The weekend saw pitched battles with demonstrators launching bricks, Molotov cocktails and steel balls at police, who in turn volleyed tear gas and deployed water cannons. A police media-liaison officer was hit in the leg by an arrow, while protesters tossed petrol bombs at residents clearing streets strewn with bricks.
Police were preparing to clear the remaining demonstrators from Hong Kong Polytechnic University early Monday morning and warned that they could use live ammunition if they faced violence. Police were using water cannon to try to disperse hundreds of protesters dug in at the school.
Soldiers from China’s People’s Liberation Army took the rare step of leaving their barracks to join cleanup efforts. The move added to the concern by some about China’s growing control over the former British colony that has fueled five months of protests.
With tension running high, schools will remain suspended Monday on safety concerns. The escalating violence also threatens to delay district council elections scheduled for next Sunday. There are signs too that Hong Kong society is becoming more polarized, as protest-weary residents who helped clean up the city’s streets were harassed by demonstrators. “Violence and hatred are devouring the entire society and put Hong Kong into extreme danger,” Financial Secretary Paul Chan wrote in his weekly blog Sunday. “People should distance themselves from violence more than ever before.”
As the list of casualties and damage grows, so too are the cracks in Hong Kong’s economy and international reputation. The government is forecasting the first annual contraction since the global financial crisis a decade ago, while unemployment is predicted to rise.
Gross domestic product will contract 1.3% from 2018, the government said Friday as it released final output calculations for the third quarter. The government said ending the city’s violent unrest is key to an economic recovery.
One of the protesters’ key demands is the establishment of an independent commission of inquiry to examine the use of force by police, which, according to a recent poll, has the overwhelming support of Hong Kong people.
About 80% of Hong Kong adults want the government to set up an independent commission of inquiry, according to a new survey by Hong Kong Public Opinion Program. That’s up from 77% earlier this month. The government has so far ruled out any further political concessions to the protesters.
“The government needs to do something meaningful to stop the violence and I think setting up an independent protests committee is the best way to bring back peace,” one regular protester, who would only identify herself as Lam, said. She declined to give her full name because of safety concerns.
Activity shifted to universities last week as students sought refuge. At the weekend, police and protesters faced off outside Polytechnic University, while a five-day face-off between activists and officers at Chinese University of Hong Kong ended on Friday after vice chancellor Rocky Tuan urged people to leave the campus.
Sonny Lo, a political commentator who’s written books on the city’s relationship with Beijing, said the government still has options among them is considering to set up a reconciliation committee and another is calling a temporary truce so that elections can be held.
“It could be a combined approach,” he said. If the people of Hong Kong, including the protesters, want the election to be held, there should be a temporary truce, and if peace holds, a reconciliation committee can be set up. Maybe then there will be a “realist possibility of a breakthrough,” Lo said.
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