PTU News Reporter
PTU News Issue 701 2019.12.9 Cover Story
A serious clash between citizens and the police broke out at The Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU) in mid-November. Protesters occupied PolyU while the police laid siege to the campus. The incident continued for days and became a growing public concern. On November 18th, more than 50 principals entered the university together with lawmaker Ip Kin-yuen in an attempt to help students leave safely. In the 13 days that followed, more than a hundred principals, along with teachers and social workers, accompanied more than 300 secondary school students and about 50 volunteer medics as they left the campus. ‘The only motivation behind all our attempts was making sure all our kids made it home safe.’
Stepping over the Debris in Suits, Long Skirts, and Heels
On November 18th afternoon, more than 30 secondary school principals and education sector lawmaker Ip Kin-yuen called a press conference at the Legislative Council to express concerns about the PolyU siege and urgently called for the government to resolve the issues by peaceful means. In recounting the development of events, Ip said much was unplanned. ‘I was on the phone with a principal that afternoon and I realised he was just as worried about the situation at PolyU and wished he could contribute to de-escalation.’ The initial idea was to recruit a couple more principals to call a press conference to express their concerns, but by the time the press conference took place, a crowd of more than 30 secondary school principals turned up, including members of The Hong Kong Association of the Heads of Secondary Schools and the Hong Kong Association of Careers Masters and Guidance Masters.
The principals were discussing the next steps after the press conference when one of them suggested immediately going to PolyU to find their students. Ip said they were worried and skeptical as to whether they would granted access to the campus. ‘Lawmakers and Bishop Joseph Ha failed to enter the campus the day before (November 17th). The government might not allow principals to get near PolyU.’ The government finally agreed to let the principals enter the campus after a lengthy discussion, but made it clear they would not be accompanied and safety would not be guaranteed. Anyone who decided to enter PolyU had to do so at their own risks. And so, more than 30 principals walked the talk and left for PolyU – in their suits, long skirts, and heels.
Red Bricks Shattered Overnight
On the way to PolyU, Ip recruited a team of volunteer lawyers while the principals were busy keeping other principals informed. They gathered at a hotel in East Tsim Sha Tsui, where 20 more principals joined the crew. At the same time, clashes broke out outside the hotel and tear gases infiltrated the hotel lobby. ‘The principals, lawyers, and I all ‘fell victim’. It hurt so much we couldn’t open our eyes and everyone was coughing.’ The crew of more than 50 left for PolyU as soon as the clashes abated. Ip said what came into his sight when he entered the campus was unforgettable — the beautiful red-brick campus was shattered overnight. Stepping over the debris, the principals launched their search for students. As they entered the campus from Core A, what greeted them was yelling from the protesters in black t-shirts. ‘They were very tense after a long period of stand-off. Some of them did not trust us. But there were also students who saw their own principals and rushed into their arms. Students on the besieged campus were drowned in emotions, but I believe, at that moment, even the principals they had never talked to became the dearest and most trustworthy adults around.’
At that night, the principals contacted their students via phone messages from PolyU Core A, asking them to come and meet, talk, or even for a hug. ‘All we could do was to accompany them at all times and ensure their safety as well as dignity.’
In the 13 days that followed, the campus saw principals, teachers, lawmakers, lawyers, social workers and other concerned individuals who wanted to help and take care of students every day. Some principals and teachers who could not be there in person asked Ip, along with lawyers and first-aiders, to help find their missing students. ‘The campus is huge and finding the students was no mean feat. We exhausted all our efforts to inquire and contact our kids with the hope to get them home safe.’
Ip Kin-yuen: Grateful for Everyone Who Joined the Rescue Crew
As protesters slowly made their exit, the campus became more deserted by day. The police later entered the campus to discard dangerous goods and lifted the siege. Ip said more than a hundred principals and volunteer medics participated in the rescue. The crew accompanied more than 300 secondary school students as they left the campus. ‘Our belief was one and the same – get our kids home safe. I am most grateful to everyone who participated in the rescue – every principal, teacher, volunteer lawyer, social worker, and everyone else.’
Every Night Was the Last Night
Education sector lawmaker Ip Kin-yuen used to be a principal himself and caring about students came naturally to him. The principals’ attempts to rescue the students were successful at times and were, at other times, futile. Some students could be reached by phone, but refused to meet with the principals. ‘Getting to meet with them was already great progress,’ said Ip.
I Found and Lost Him in the Blink of An Eye
Ip was entrusted by other principals to look for their students. He managed to find one of them and explained to him their plan, but, like many others who stayed behind, the student did not trust it at all. Looking back, Ip said, ‘A lot was going on at the moment. I lost sight of him in the blink of an eye. I tried to find him again, but to no avail.’
The experience still pains Ip. ‘When we entered the campus on Monday, we thought that was our only shot. We were despondent and worried. We thought we had lost them.’ Not knowing whether the police would grant them entry the following day, Ip took every chance seriously. ‘I took every night as the last night.’ To his relief, they were allowed entry the following days.
Young Medic Determined to Stay and Helped Search for Protesters
Every time he saw a young face, Ip would go and greet them. In the first evening, he came across a young medic. ‘He looked really young, probably around 15. He would not go however hard I tried to persuade him.’ By persuasion, Ip really meant explaining their plan and informing kids of their rights. If students decided to stay, Ip would respect their decision.
When he found out Ip was looking for two injured students who were said to be taking a rest at a first-aid station, the young medic took Ip through the campus to find them as there were multiple first-aid stations. ‘He knew exactly what he was doing. He was very mature and helpful.’ Although the young medic refused to leave, Ip took comfort in witnessing the his maturity.
Ip became a regular at PolyU that week, visiting protesters who stayed. He stayed till late night every day, sometimes only leaving in the small hours. The principals all exhausted themselves for that one belief – ‘get our kids home safe’.