HONG KONG — Students on Hong Kong’s university campuses geared up for potential clashes with the police Wednesday, as residents navigated severe transit disruptions and office workers brawled with officers in the heart of the financial district.
This week’s disruptions are notable because they have strained the city’s infrastructure for three straight workdays, forcing commuters to choose whether to venture outside and risk being caught up in clashes and tear gas. The protests started in June over an extradition bill that has since been withdrawn, and have morphed into broader demands for democracy and police accountability.
Schools and universities have become flash points. A day after young demonstrators staged a fiery standoff against the police on the fringes of a university campus, classes were called off there Wednesday for the remainder of the fall semester.
Student demonstrators with umbrellas, masks, bricks, and shields geared up Wednesday at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, a campus that has become a focal point of the confrontation between protesters and police.
The university also became one of at least two in Hong Kong to announce that on-campus classes would be canceled for the remainder of the fall semester. (The other, Hong Kong Baptist University, said in an e-mail to students and staff that on-campus classes would be postponed or conducted online.)
At the fringes of the Chinese University of Hong Kong campus Tuesday night, police officers in riot gear fired hundreds of rounds of tear gas at demonstrators who set a giant blaze and threw gasoline bombs. The clash lasted for hours and left dozens injured.
Student activists at universities say they are defending their campuses from police intrusion. Police assert that they have to stop demonstrators from blocking roads, throwing bricks, or trying to disrupt rail services.
John Tse, a top police official, told reporters Wednesday that the police force believed the Chinese University of Hong Kong was being used as a “factory” to manufacture gasoline bombs, bows and arrows, and other rudimentary weapons for use against officers.
“This necessitates police response and the use of force, including rubber bullets, bean bag rounds, and tear gas for dispersal,” he said.
Since the protests began, the movement has been driven in large part by high school and university-age students. But until recently, campuses were a relative safe zone from violent clashes.
John Lee, Hong Kong’s secretary for security, defended the police Wednesday. Universities were not meant to be “breeding grounds for violence,” he told reporters. “If someone sees violence and does not stop it, then that person becomes an accomplice.”
The Education Bureau said Wednesday morning that it was up to parents whether their children attended school, and that schools should keep their campuses open regardless.
The statement immediately prompted criticism from unions on opposite sides of the city’s political spectrum.
The bureau later said that all classes at Hong Kong kindergartens, primary, and secondary schools would be suspended Thursday.
Large groups of riot police officers disrupted a rally in the city’s financial district around lunchtime Wednesday, making multiple arrests and beating protesters with batons.
Many of the protesters were there to support the students who had been battling police at the Chinese University on Tuesday. Office workers in suits and ties formed a human supply chain to move water and umbrellas to the front-line protesters.
When police swooped in and started beating protesters, the crowd fought back, and a brawl erupted outside a luxury mall that houses an Apple store.
By early afternoon, the streets around the mall had the feel of a militarized zone, and were deserted except for a handful of officers, workers, and tourists taking pictures. After the police retreated, protesters spent much of the afternoon sprinkling the financial district with stone-and-bamboo barricades.
Police began clearing those barricades in the evening, crushing some with an armored vehicle. But in other parts of town, protesters set fires, built more barricades, and clashed with officers into the night.
The Chinese central government’s Liaison Office in Hong Kong condemned the flare-up of protest violence, warning in a statement issued online late Tuesday that months of protests had “pushed Hong Kong into an extremely dangerous place.”
“This murderous conduct in broad daylight is brazen terrorism,” the office said of a man who was set alight by protesters Tuesday. “This shows absolutely no bottom line in behavior, absolutely no humanity or morality, and absolutely no fear of the law.”
The most likely scenario now is that the Hong Kong government will more broadly invoke the city’s emergency regulations ordinance, said Lau Siu-kai, vice chairman of the Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macao Studies, a semiofficial advisory body set up by Beijing.
The Hong Kong government invoked the colonial-era ordinance last month to ban face masks at public gatherings. In an interview Wednesday, Lau said it might be used again to enact a curfew, although the question of how the police would enforce it remained unclear.
“If people defy a curfew, do you use live ammunition to enforce it?” he said. “That is the decision to be made; the government is still very reluctant to do it.”
Hong Kong police said Wednesday that some of the city’s marine police officers had been deployed to help evacuate mainland Chinese students who attend the Chinese University.
China’s Communist Youth League, the youth division of the ruling Communist Party, offered the students seven days of free accommodation at its lodgings in Shenzhen, a mainland Chinese city that lies just over the border from Hong Kong.