By Josh Smith and Kate Lamb
HONGKONG (Reuters) – Under a November full moon, hundreds of young people dressed in black set about turning several of Hong Kong’s top universities into fortresses, well stocked with improvised weapons.
At City University, protesters used ping pong tables, potted plants, furniture, sports equipment, and bamboo to form a network of barricades to block roads and fortify the entrances to the student residence complex.
Hundreds of protesters wearing gas masks and helmets tore up piles of paving bricks and ceramic tiles to hurl at police, while others stockpiled dozens of petrol bombs, distributing them to their forward positions.
Small groups sat chatting as they fashioned garden hose and nails into spikes to puncture car tyres.
The scene this week was repeated at nearly half a dozen campuses across Hong Kong, where demonstrators say they have been forced into taking a harder line by the government.
Until now, the anti-government protesters have used fast-moving, hit-and-run tactics to “be like water” and avoid arrest in clashes with police.
But now with protesters beginning to wield bows and arrows and occupying improvised breastworks, the tactics threaten to take the pro-democracy campaign to a new level of risk for all sides.
The protesters say their non-violent efforts have been met by brutal police tactics, and their weapons are needed to protect themselves.
Police have shot and wounded at least three protesters.
“It has never been a fair war zone,” said 23-year-old Josh, as he watched protesters practice shooting arrows at Baptist University (BU).
“We have nothing, only masks and the police have guns. We’re only trying to defend ourselves.”
Another protester said he had begun to throw bricks after seeing police attack demonstrators.
“We try every peaceful means but we fail,” said Chris, 19, a student from the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.
“We would probably throw petrol bombs and bricks because we don’t want our friends to be injured,” he said, breaking into tears as he described police crackdowns.
“I’m willing to die for Hong Kong.”
The protesters seem increasingly intent on forcing a showdown, as small raiding parties vandalise shops and block roads, tunnels, and rail lines in widening areas around their campuses.
Authorities said protesters had turned the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) into a “weapons factory”, prompting a crackdown on Tuesday that left many people injured in fiery clashes.
Students accused police of turning the campus into a war zone and said they have no choice but to defend themselves.
Protesters have fortified parts of the campuses of Polytechnic University and University of Hong Kong (HKU), in addition to CUHK, BU, and City University.
(GRAPHIC-Escalating violence in Hong Kong: https://graphics.reuters.com/HONGKONG-PROTESTS-VIOLENCE/0100B2LM1ZX/hong-kong-violence.jpg)
For the first time, protesters have been arming themselves with bows and arrows looted from university sports offices. Police said flaming arrows, a signal flare, and even electric saws had been wielded against officers.
On Thursday, police said protesters dropped flower pots and fired several arrows at officers near Polytechnic University. There were no casualties.
Protesters could be jailed for two years for assaulting a police officer, while “wounding with intent” could mean life, police said.
The city education secretary chided university authorities over “riotous acts” on campuses. HKU President Xiang Zhang called on students not to provoke the police into entering the campus.
“If there are any who are planning to do anything with serious consequences, such as actions likely to injure people, I appeal to them NOT to,” he said.
Demonstrators are angry about what they see as police brutality and meddling by Beijing in the freedoms guaranteed under a “one country, two systems” formula introduced when the territory returned to Chinese rule in 1997.
China denies interfering and has blamed Western countries for stirring up trouble.
Police deny using excessive force but have unleashed unprecedented amounts of tear gas, pepper spray, rubber bullets, and water cannons.
In a possible preview of tactics to come, police used an armoured truck with officers firing less-than-lethal rounds to break up a barricade in the business district on Wednesday.
CUHK had become a “battlefield for criminals and rioters”, a police spokesman said.
“Where did all these petrol bombs and weapons come from?” spokesman Tse Chun-chung asked reporters. “We have strong suspicion that the school was used as a weapon factory.”
At City University, the dorm buildings echoed to the sound of protesters pulling up and heaping paving bricks to use as projectiles.
They knocked back cases of drinks then filled the bottles with a mixture of oil and petrol.
Protesters with less experience used plastic bottles to practice throwing.
At one point, the operation got more organised as supplies of food, water and medical equipment were carried in.
“There are a lot of petrol bombs,” said one 16-year-old school student who felt compelled to join the fray.
“It’s set to be a good show.”
A sense of purposeful anarchy reigned. Some protesters picked up litter, sorting it for recycling, while here and there a couple waded through the crowd, masked and in black, holding hands.
University officials were nowhere to be seen, except for the residence guards who sat at their desks as protesters appropriated everything in reach.
Occasionally, lookouts would sound the alarm, sparking a flurry of activity and shouts as black-clad figures crouched behind barricades, umbrellas and homemade shields at the ready.
Some anxious international students scurried past, suitcases in hand. Others took photos.
Volunteer medics set a up a first-aid station in a hall.
“I’m not afraid to get hurt, but I’m afraid of being arrested, because it means a loss of freedom,” said 19-year-old student named Thomas, as he strapped on plastic guards on his forearms and shins.
“And freedom is why I’m here.”
(Reporting by Kate Lamb and Josh Smith; Additional reporting by Jessie Pang; Writing by Josh Smith; Editing by Robert Birsel)