Episode 26: ‘Fire and Water’
Producer/Director Andréa Schmidt
Protesters clutching smartphones and wearing masks took to the streets. Armor-clad riot police fired water cannons and tear gas to reassert authority. For months, the two sides clashed in a spate of increasingly violent confrontations at Hong Kong Polytechnic University.
The siege of PolyU last November was the climax of intense confrontations between the Hong Kong police, who had exhausted their tolerance for dissent, and protesters who refused to give up their freedoms without a fight.
Watch video from the front lines at PolyU as the area was turned into an urban battlefield. Listen to masked protesters, too frightened to speak openly, describe on camera how they barricaded themselves inside university buildings and desperately tried to escape days after riot police stormed the school.
Reporters and editors in The New York Times’s Hong Kong and Beijing bureaus collaborated with members of our visual investigations team to reconstruct the chaotic events leading up to the siege of PolyU for this episode of “The Weekly.” They include Keith Bradsher, the Shanghai bureau chief who used to be the bureau chief in Hong Kong; Javier C. Hernández, a correspondent in Beijing; Barbara Marcolini of the visual investigations team; Tiffany May, who is based in the Hong Kong bureau; Edward Wong, a diplomatic and international correspondent in Washington who previously served as Beijing bureau chief; and Gillian Wong, The Times’s China editor in Hong Kong.
Hiding behind masks
The protests started peacefully, but grew more contentious and quickly divided and disrupted the city. Nearly one in seven Hong Kong residents were reported to have turned out to protest the extradition bill. As the police cracked down, some of the protesters grew increasingly aggressive and were accused of rioting — a crime that’s punished with up to 10 years in prison. Many of the protesters wore masks, to protect themselves from pepper spray and tear gas, and to conceal their identities from authorities. The protesters who agreed to speak to “The Weekly” about their experiences did so only if they wouldn’t be identified.
What started as peaceful protests against an unpopular extradition bill escalated into more than six months of increasingly violent clashes between Hong Kong protesters and the police trying to assert control.
Schools and universities had become flash points of the protest movement.
The use of force, sometimes deadly, led to widespread calls for political reforms and greater oversight and accountability of the police. Citizens who couldn’t rely on the authorities to keep them safe set up their own networks to monitor police brutality.
Though the Beijing-backed leader of Hong Kong withdrew the extradition bill that had set off the initial protests, it was not enough to quell the mounting movement for broader political reforms and police accountability.
The clashes between police and protesters at PolyU were a new level of violence in a protest movement that had started peacefully. As police officers swept through the campus in November, students were forced to escape what The Times described as a montage of urban warfare and mayhem however they could.
President Xi Jinping of China has come under criticism for Beijing’s response to the protests, with even some in the Chinese government quietly raising questions about Xi’s imperious style and authoritarian concentration of power.
Senior Story Editors Dan Barry, Liz O. Baylen, and Liz Day
Supervising Producer Singeli Agnew
Director of Photography Victor Tadashi Suarez
Video Editor Pierre Takal
Senior Coordinating Producer Sameen Amin
Photographer Lam Fei Yak
Associate Producer Abdulai Bah
Post Associate Producer Valerie Shenkman, Wesley Harris
Archival Producer Gini Richards
Associate Archive Producer Timothy Duffy
Field Producers Sharon Yeung
Additional Reporting Ezra Cheung, K.K. Rebecca Lai, Elaine Yu, and Haley Willis