Hong Kong students' sewer escape thwarted as China feuds with U.K., U.S.

Some anti-government protesters trapped inside a Hong Kong university on Wednesday tried to flee through the sewers, where one student said she saw snakes, but firemen prevented the escape by blocking a trapdoor into the system.

Fewer than 100 remain inside Hong Kong Polytechnic University after more than 1,000 arrested

Riot police detain a protester after he tried to escape from Hong Kong Polytechnic University on Tuesday. (Vincent Yu/Associated Press)

Some anti-government protesters trapped inside a Hong Kong university on Wednesday tried to flee through the sewers, where one student said she saw snakes, but firemen prevented the escape by blocking a trapdoor into the system.

Reuters witnesses said fewer than 100 protesters remained inside the Polytechnic University, ring-fenced 24 hours a day by riot police and barricades, after more than 1,000 were arrested since late on Monday.

Some surrendered while others were grabbed in escape attempts that included trying to clamber down ropes to waiting motorbikes.

Some protesters, wearing waterproof boots and carrying torches, resurfaced inside the campus on Wednesday after unsuccessfully probing the sewers — where fast-rising water levels are also a hazard — for a way out during the night.

It was unclear if any had managed to escape that way.

Firefighters, who the students let onto the campus, were in place to stop any further such attempts to flee, blocking the only feasible entrance into the sewer system in an underground car park.

'Many cockroaches, many snakes'

"The sewer was very smelly, with many cockroaches, many snakes. Every step was very, very painful," said Bowie, 23, a student at Hong Kong University who was forced to turn back.

"And the flow of water was strong. Hong Kong is a very developed city. I'd never thought that one day I would need to hide in a sewer or escape through sewers to survive.... The most unforgettable feeling is the fear when I was inside."

A rescue diver enters the sewer to search for anti-government protesters who tried to escape from the besieged Hong Kong Polytechnic University on Tuesday. (Thomas Peter/Reuters)

She said she and a friend were in the dirty water for about an hour, only to find they were no closer to escape.

"When we reached the end, we found we were still in the poly," she said.

5,000 arrests

Police searched for any escapees during the night with spotlights, without resorting to the tear gas and rubber bullets, that marked clashes in recent days.

Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam has called for a humane end to a siege that saw the most intense clashes since the protests escalated more than five months ago.

Riot police gather near a Louis Vuitton store during a demonstration in the financial district in Hong Kong on Wednesday. (Kin Cheung/The Associated Press)

They also tightened security in the streets around the university, making them safe enough for a late Tuesday visit by the force's new commissioner, Chris Tang, at the end of his first day on the job.

Tang earlier urged the support of all citizens to end the unrest triggered by fears that Beijing is stifling the former British colony's freedoms and extensive autonomy guaranteed in its handover to Chinese rule in 1997.

New police motto

Tang is under pressure to restore police morale as well as public confidence in a force that has come in for widespread criticism for increasingly violent tactics to suppress the protests. Police deny accusations of using excessive force.

The police quietly rolled out a new, harder-edged motto on Tang's first day, replacing "We Serve with Pride and Care" with "Serving Hong Kong with Honour, Duty and Loyalty."

Police have made more than 5,000 arrests in connection with the protests since June.

Chinese leaders say they are committed to the "one country, two systems" formula put in place in 1997 and have accused foreign countries, including Britain and the United States, of stirring up trouble.

Britain 'shocked' by treatment of consulate employee

British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab condemned China's treatment of a former employee of Britain's Hong Kong consulate who told a newspaper Chinese secret police beat him seeking information about the protest movement.

Simon Cheng, a Hong Kong citizen who worked for the British mission's business-development team when he was detained, told the Wall Street Journal that he was questioned repeatedly about the role his interrogators presumed Britain was playing in fomenting the unrest.

Protesters sleep on the floor of a parking lot inside the Hong Kong Polytechnic University on Wednesday. A dwindling number of exhausted pro-democracy protesters barricaded inside the Hong Kong university defied warnings on Tuesday to surrender. (Nicolas Asfouri/AFP via Getty Images)

"Simon Cheng was a valued member of our team. We were shocked and appalled by the mistreatment he suffered while in Chinese detention, which amounts to torture," Raab said, according to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

The U.S. House of Representatives, meanwhile, passed legislation intended to support human rights in Hong Kong by requiring regular reviews of the city's special financial status.

As voting continued, the vote was an overwhelming 412-1 in favour of the "Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act," sending it to the White House for U.S. President Donald Trump to sign into law or veto. The Senate passed it unanimously on Tuesday.

'Big fight'

China's foreign ministry condemned the legislation, saying the United States should stop interfering in Hong Kong and Chinese affairs. The Hong Kong government expressed "deep regret" over it.

The unrest marks the most serious popular challenge to Chinese President Xi Jinping since he came to power in 2012.

Protesters are escorted out of the main entrance to the Polytechnic University campus, the site of a multi-day standoff between demonstrators and police. (Nicolas Asfouri/AFP/Getty Images)

Some protesters emerged as the sun rose above the campus to express a range of feelings, from defiance to uncertainty.

They still have stocks of petrol bombs, bows and arrows and other makeshift weapons after a weekend of fiery clashes.

'We're not going to give up now'

One protester practiced firing arrows at a campus tower while others considered hiding in the maze of campus buildings, as they said a teacher had advised them to do.

Two protesters in body armour, wielding metal rods, were going to get some sleep after a night on guard, watching police movements outside.

"We need some energy to get ready for the big fight. Now that there's not many of us left they may want to come in," said a former student named Marc, 26.

"We know this place, it's our home and it's a maze, and we have weapons. We're not going to give up now, it's too late for that."

The university on the Kowloon peninsula is the last of five that protesters had occupied to use as bases from which to disrupt the city over the past 10 days, blocking the central Cross-Harbour Tunnel outside and other arteries.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?