Hong Kong residents turned out in force on Saturday to clear bricks and other blockages from main roads near some of the city’s university campuses, after five straight days of escalated protest action and traffic mayhem.
Heeding online calls from some pro-establishment figures, hundreds of people dismantled barricades built with metal railings, bricks and other obstacles and placed them on pavements and in trucks near Hong Kong, Baptist, Chinese and Polytechnic universities.
The clear-up was punctuated by several tense moments. Arguments and minor scuffles broke out between black-clad protesters and those clearing Pok Fu Lam Road outside the University of Hong Kong.
At about 3.45pm, around a dozen protesters sat in front of one of the barricades, which residents dismantled around them, but they later retreated to overpasses linked to the university, heckling the clearers and at one point throwing several burning objects onto the road.
In Kowloon Tong, near Baptist University, about 50 soldiers, many dressed in green T-shirts and black shorts, from the People’s Liberation Army’s barracks marched out at about 4.30pm and joined pro-government supporters to help remove roadblocks and reopen Renfrew Road and Hereford Road.
Hong Kong has been gripped by more than five months of unrest, sparked by the now-withdrawn extradition bill, but the protests have since morphed into a wider anti-government movement.
In escalated action this week, protesters paralysed traffic by setting up roadblocks on the city’s main thoroughfares, including at the Cross-Harbour Tunnel in Hung Hom, and occupying some university campuses.
Most residents involved in the Pok Fu Lam clearance operation believed the roadblocks had gone too far.
“I think everyone is upset, because our community is blocked off. I have an 18-month-old and she hasn’t been able to go outside, so I just thought I would come down and see what I could do,” said a resident, surnamed Tam, 32.
Another resident, Tim Plunkett, who was also out clearing bricks, said: “It feels like it’s definitely escalated. I sympathise with the protesters and I understand the rationale, but I think it’s shifted and gone too far.”
He said his opinion shifted when someone threw a bin in front of a minibus he was in. “I have two young kids,” he said.
HKU alumna Jessica Poon, 49, was shocked protesters threw objects from the overpass. “This is unprecedented, we don’t have any tear gas, why did they throw this at us? We are not fighting them.”
Three masked protesters showed up in the early afternoon to watch, with one saying they were just checking if the residents were doing “something safe”.
“For me it’s totally fine, we don’t want any conflict with citizens, they are not the audience or our target, but it’s best if they don’t interrupt,” said the protester, 20, who was not a student but lived nearby. “Let’s see how this ends up, we may decide to rebuild it.”
But other protesters felt more strongly, with a larger group of around a dozen coming down and lighting charcoal, temporarily filling the road with smoke to clear residents at work. Shortly afterwards they began fortifying their blockades, while a few residents carried on removing bricks.
There were also civil discussions as residents, mainly expats, questioned the tactics of protesters, who tried to explain why they felt the need to escalate their actions.
Later, several construction trucks arrived to assist in the clearing, and some police vans, with residents chanting their support for the force, with a few shouting “police add oil” – a Chinese term of encouragement.
At Baptist University, the atmosphere remained quiet as protesters had left their barriers when other residents arrived to clear them. Office worker Tim Leung, 45, said he came to “restore peace”.
“I don’t live in the district and only came here after seeing online calls. I am upholding the rights of other road users to take this road to get to places and go about their lives.”
At Chinese University’s campus in Sha Tin, a sense of tranquillity returned although debris lay scattered around after intense clashes between protesters and police earlier in the week.
Hundreds of students, graduates and staff turned up at the campus for the clearance.
Chan, a master’s degree holder in his 30s, went to pick up “useful materials”.
“The gas masks, helmets, and medical materials are expensive and some are new. So many people donated money and materials to the protesters, we must not waste them,” Chan said, adding that he would store some materials at home for future protests.
A research assistant surnamed Ng said he was disappointed that the university wanted to stop people from going in.
“The school is going to throw away all the materials here regardless of what they are, just to return the campus to normality. But the school won’t just return to normal after clearing up, the management needs to keep talking to the students,” Ng said.
At University MTR station, which has been closed since Tuesday after being trashed, dozens of railway staff and the company’s contractors appeared to clear the site.
More from South China Morning Post:
- PLA soldiers sent onto streets of Hong Kong for first time since protests began – to help clear roadblocks near Kowloon Tong garrison
- Hong Kong protests: tension returns to city after peaceful Saturday with stand-off in Hung Hom
- Group claiming to be Hong Kong students apologises for traffic chaos, but says government has forced them to do it
- Hong Kong protests: peaceful Friday turns violent again as government issues warning to employees and university chiefs call for end to deadlock