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Interactions between Hong Kong police and protesters are becoming more violent and forceful
Marissa Johnson was supposed to spend a year studying in Hong Kong.
Now the University of Toronto exchange student is changing her plans, as a result of the massive pro-democracy, anti-government protests that continue to engulf her home away from home.
She evacuated her residence at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) earlier this month when the semester was cancelled. She doesn’t know if the school will open next semester, but she has decided she won’t return and will instead come home to Canada immediately.
Johnson, 22, is among the Canadians caught up in the current turmoil in Hong Kong.
What started as a peaceful protest on March 31, 2019 has escalated. Since June, protests have turned violent and spread.
Protesters have stationed themselves throughout Hong Kong, many using university campuses as a home base in their fight against the police. They continue to push for the Hong Kong government to meet their demands that would see the region’s chief executive leader, Carrie Lam, step down from power, an investigation into police brutality and greater democratic freedoms. Another demand, to withdraw a bill allowing for the extradition of criminals convicted in Hong Kong to mainland China, has been agreed to.
When classes were cancelled on the morning of Monday, Nov. 11, due to the strikes, Johnson said she wasn’t really concerned.
“There was a strike planned on campus which is not really out of the usual. There’s been some other protests and strikes that have happened on campus, always very peaceful. Everybody’s usually pretty respectful,” she said.
It wasn’t until police showed up that Johnson began to worry.
“The police wanted to enter campus but the protesters who are mostly students my age, had a bit of a clash with the police. There were arguments about whether or not the police are allowed to enter campus or not, or even if they had any business being on campus,” Johnson said.
During the next couple of days, many of the mainland Chinese left for home, leaving very few people on campus aside from the protesters.
When Johnson’s school announced the semester was cancelled the exchange office strongly suggested that students leave campus.
According to Johnson, posters on elevator doors advised students to film all encounters with police and post them on social media in the event that they entered campus and tried to search dorm rooms.
Students participating in the strike even began to build barricades around the campus to prevent police from getting in.
“The students started to build a wall. We had heard about the walls and seen some pictures but in person it was actually pretty impressive. They took bricks from the sidewalks and they started constructing a wall,” Johnson said.
Food, umbrellas and bottles were being dropped off to the campus and students were asked to bring any extra supplies they had, such as old T-shirts, towels and medical supplies, to the lobby.
At one point during the week, one of Johnson’s friends left the window to her bathroom open, which caused some tear gas thrown by police to enter, making it impossible for anyone to use.
Then, on the afternoon of Friday, Nov. 15, Johnson and two of her friends decided it was time to leave. They made their way across campus on foot, pulling suitcases behind them. Though the school’s campus is rather large, the buses that usually run were all cancelled.
According to Johnson, a driver passed by and offered to give them a ride to the main exit. Once they were dropped off, protesters helped carry their bags and lift them over the guard rail.
“We noticed as we were leaving that there were some protesters stationed on different places on campus and were checking student identifications as people entered,” Johnson said.
Another Canadian with a front row seat to the turmoil in Hong Kong is Eric Lam, a Ryerson graduate and a former news editor for the Ryersonian. He is now working as a reporter at Bloomberg’s Hong Kong office.
“The demographics of the protesters has been skewing towards younger people in Hong Kong and that includes a lot of university students and younger students,” said Lam. “Some of the people who have been arrested have actually been very young.”
Tear gas, rubber bullets, sponge grenades and water cannons have become fairly common weapons amongst police, who are using them against the protesters, said Lam.
“On the protesters side we’ve seen a lot of usage of defensive tactics such as putting up barricades and putting up stacks of bricks along the roads. They’ve also done more offensive things like using petrol bombs, throwing molotov cocktails and throwing bricks,” he said.