Visiting Hong Kong’s PolyU Campus

Victor Hogrefe
8 min readNov 23, 2019

Recent business dealings have brought me to mainland China, where I was able to live and work for several weeks in the modern tech-city of Shenzhen. Shenzhen is situated directly on the border to Hong Kong, and the formerly British metropolis is only about 40 minutes away.

Naturally, we decided to visit the city on one of our weekends, even amidst intensifying protests; or in my case, because of them. The news had been reporting on the situation in Hong Kong for many months, and the week before we visited, violence and tensions had dramatically increased. A protestor was shot with a live round, point blank, and the police’s use of teargas, water cannons and rubber bullets had intensified.

The divide between yellow ribbons — those who support the protests, and blue ribbons — those who support the police and government, had grown deeper as we entered the 8th month of continual protests, which were triggered by a proposed bill allowing the extradition of suspected criminals to mainland China, where they could be tried under the communist government’s legal system. This bill was seen as an infringement on the promised autonomy of Hong Kong which, though part of China, retains special administrative status.

Crossing into Hong Kong is like crossing the border of any other country. First you leave China, get a departing stamp in you passport, and then you enter Honk Kong, where you need to fill out a visitor form. In fact, travelling to Hong Kong on a Canadian passport is easier than doing it with Chinese papers. My Chinese partner would require a visa, which demonstrates just how separate this special administrative zone is from the rest of the mainland.

Since we couldn’t obtain a visa on such short notice, we resorted to a well-known loophole that mainlanders use to visit the Dragon City: we bought fake plane tickets to Thailand. There are various companies that offer this service, buy tickets in bulk from the airlines, and then cancel the fake ones while charging a small fee to the grateful traveler.

On the other side of the crossing, a fleet of busses stands on continual standby, awaiting tourists, residents, shoppers and students converging on what CNN had called the world’s greatest city not too long ago. Stepping off the bus in central Tsim Sha Tsui, one could start to appreciate that sentiment. Hong Kong is immediately likeable, with a bustling atmosphere and flashing neon signs illuminating the narrow canyons between inward leaning apartment complexes peppered with air conditioners.

Walking south along Nathan Road, the central thoroughfare, we began seeing the impact of prolonged protests. The streets, concrete dividers between traffic lanes, walls, crosswalks, and shop fronts were graffitied with slogans and messages of resistance, and pleas for help. Many street lights were damaged or completely destroyed, and whole patches of sidewalk were reduced to sandbeds, ever since protestors had started using the bricks to block traffic.

Aside from these signs of unrest, the city seemed to function rather normally. We did not see any violence and everyone was going about their day as if nothing was going on. Naturally, we wanted to see some protests to understand the situation better, and decided to visit the Hong Kong Polytechnic University Campus the next morning, which had recently been a hot bed of resistance. That night, the news reported on black clad students with masks and helmets firing arrows at police, setting cars on fire and barricading themselves on campus.

PolyU is just a short 15 minute walk from where we were staying, so the next morning we sallied forth to see the fuss.

The atmosphere started to change a few blocks out. Bricks were strewn all over the road, windows were shattered and makeshift barricades topped with umbrellas were blocking off roads. Though the morning was still, and no protests were happening at the time, we saw plenty of signs of previous battles; burnt umbrellas and shattered glass all over the place, and little plastic tubes pierced with nails to tear into the tires of police cars and busses used to drive straight through the crowds of activists.

The outer buildings of PolyU are arranged in a fortress-type manner, with the university on an elevated plateau. The roofs and terraces of the red brick structures formed the ramparts of the dissident student forces, lined with umbrellas and manned by masked figures on lookout with binoculars and walkie talkies. We waved up at them as we stood alone in the brick fields that once were commercial streets, but did not get a response. The sentries were on a long and grim watch indeed.

Only now did the surreal nature of this situation truly hit me. We had left behind a modern metropolis and stumbled into an almost post apocalyptic world. This place looked and felt like an urban version of Mad Max, and gave me perhaps the tiniest glimpse of what a war zone is like. Of course, we needed to see more.

We cautiously approached the barricaded entrance of the campus. At the small gateway created in the trash pile fortifications, at the top of the stairs, a contingent of students in their black uniforms and masks patted us down and checked our bags for weapons. Only a few other reporters and photographers were around, so they must have assumed we were press as well. Who else would want to come here?

Stepping through the entrance was like entering a guerrilla war camp. Everyone was dressed in resistance gear, and gave us curious glances. Water bottles and food supplies were stacked in various corners, and boxes filled with molotov cocktails were placed at strategic locations overseeing roads or entrances. Sleeping students, taking a break from the previous night’s events were huddled on makeshift cots in lobbies and lecture halls. The student union building had been turned into a supply depot, and dorm.

Smashed surveillance cameras lay strewn all over the floor, and protestors were very weary of having their pictures taken, or giving out their names. I tried to interview some of them, filming with my phone, but they all declined, speaking to me only with the camera off.

I chatted with a group of students volunteering at the campus cafeteria, who did not describe themselves as protestors, but rather as medical volunteers. They supplied the troops with food, coffee, bandages, and a host of other supplied and medical necessities. They spoke about how some of their parents were supportive, while others were totally opposed to their participation, how yellow and blue ribbons were tearing the city apart, and how they would continue fighting for the five demands:

  1. Full withdrawal of the extradition bill
  2. A commission of inquiry into police brutality
  3. Retraction of the “rioters” designation of protestors
  4. Amnesty for arrested protestors
  5. Universal suffrage for legislative council and chief executive

I asked them what they thought their chances were, to which they replied that the first demand, withdrawal of the extradition bill, had already been achieved. Even though they did not have high hopes of having the other demands met, they emphasized the importance of their protest. They seemed neither hopeful nor distraught, but determined, rather.

Upon asking them what had happened last night, they all claimed that nothing had occurred. We found this very strange, and asked other groups of students the same question, but all of them answered in the same way: nothing had happened, it was a peaceful night allegedly. This was of course in total contradiction to what we had seen on the news, and in the streets, but we did not press the issue. We suspected that they coordinated their responses to the press (or whomever they thought was the press), and tried to downplay the violence and to emphasize the peaceful nature of these protests. This was somewhat overshadowed by the molotov cocktail containers.

A message of peace would garner more international attention and support than an urban war zone destroying millions of dollars of university property and public sidewalks. As noble as these student’s intentions may be, I cannot help but wonder if they are going about things the right way.

China had in the previous weeks changed their approach regarding the way these protests were covered by mainland media. Whereas before, they attempted to censor as much information as possible, now they tried to amplify the situation in Honk Kong, painting it as the violent, unstable and chaotic consequence of freedom and democracy. I’ve heard several mainlanders deride the protestors and tell them to go to Syria if they wanted freedom.

Unfortunately, this change in strategy seems to be working very well. Violent protests are more and more seen as disruptive, and unnecessary, especially since the extradition bill had already been withdrawn. The students in their black uniforms, shooting arrows at the police and throwing makeshift firebombs only support the Communist Party’s message of authoritarian stability and peace.

While the CCP could swoop in at any time, and turn the protestors into martyrs, it serves them much better to let the protests keep getting out of hand, and eventually using the military to “stabilize” the situation in a peacekeeping mission. In fact, with the economic hit that Hong Kong is taking, it is likely just a matter of time until these students are betrayed by their own city.

One can merely hope for the best, while preparing for the worst. We left campus after a couple of hours, wishing the students good luck, as we crossed back into the bustling metropolis of Asia’s most famous city. One day later, we were not surprised to see on the news that PolyU had once again turned into a battleground between police and yellow ribbons, burning down part of the campus in the fray.

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Victor Hogrefe

Tech Entrepreneur, here to share thoughts on technology, politics and other philosophical musings.