Behind the barricades: Hong Kong protesters share what happened during the violent clashes with police on university campuses

insider@insider.com (Rosie Perper)
A policeman in riot gear points his weapon as protesters try to flee from the Hong Kong Polytechnic University in Hong Kong, Monday, Nov. 18, 2019. Hong Kong police have swooped in with tear gas and batons as protesters who have taken over the university campus make an apparent last-ditch effort to escape arrest.

AP Photo/Ng Han Guan

  • Last month, clashes between Hong Kong protesters and police spiraled out of control as they spread from the city's streets onto university campuses. 
  • Protesters intensified their methods on Monday, November 11, through a protest initiative called "Blossom Everywhere," which called for establishing roadblocks, disrupting train services, and vandalizing public spaces. The violence from these protests soon spread to university campuses.
  • The Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) and Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU), became battlegrounds for pro-democracy protesters against riot police in some of the most intense clashes seen in the six months since protests against a proposed extradition bill brought chaos upon the city. 
  • Here's how the protests at CUHK and PolyU played out, as told to Insider by students and protesters who experienced the hostilities firsthand. 
  • Visit Insider's homepage for more stories.

It was the closest thing to warfare that Hong Kong has seen in the six months of sustained protests that have brought the city to a standstill. 

While university campuses were long considered a haven away from the violence, this month saw them emerge as a new battleground in the fight for the city's future. Protesters, many of them university students but some as young as 15 years old, took over university campuses, barricading themselves inside and using the educational facilities to create weapons and build makeshift bunkers against police who fired tear gas and water cannons at them. 

Police clashed directly with students at both universities; at PolyU, they laid siege on the campus, forcing protesters to scale down walls or crawl through sewers in order to avoid arrest by police who were stationed nearby. Police had threatened to arrest protesters for rioting, an offense which carries up to 10 years in prison. 

Campuses are now eerily quiet after fierce clashes saw over 1,000 people arrested. The Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK), located in Sha Tin, Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU), located in Hung Hom were left in shambles as the last of the protesters cleared out at the end of November.

But the violent and desperate imagery remains. 

Police fired hundreds of rounds of tear gas and water cannons at protesters who had gathered in parts of the city, and charged the Chinese University campus where students were protesting. 

Protesters at the university fought back against police using makeshift weapons, bricks, and Molotov cocktails. 

The percolating protests soon spread to PolyU, located close to a major harbor tunnel, which made it an ideal location for protesters to disrupt traffic. Police laid siege on the campus and launched tear gas at defiant crowds, who responded by launching bows and arrows, javelins, Molotov cocktails, and other weapons at police. 

"There seems to be no end to protests," Harvey, a 22-year-old student at University of Hong Kong who participated in protests at PolyU, told Insider. "But I'll do whatever I can to support the cause." 

Here's what it was like behind the blockades, as told to Insider by students and protesters involved in the campus clashes. 

Protests have dominated the Hong Kong landscape for months. A major flashpoint of violence began on Monday, November 11, though small-scale protests had been brewing on university campuses in the days leading up.

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AP Photo/Kin Cheung

In early November, smaller protests occurred at graduation ceremonies at CUHK, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, and other universities before major campus clashes.

 

 

Following a period of relative quiet in Hong Kong, an intensified protest campaign was introduced after the death of a 22-year-old student.

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AP Photo/Dita Alangkara

Chow Tsz-lok, a computer science student at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, died on November 4 after falling from the third floor of a parking garage in Tseung Kwan O, as police fired tear gas to disperse a nearby protest. 

Chow's death sparked a new wave of furious protest called "Blossom Everywhere," which called for establishing roadblocks, disrupting train services, and vandalizing public spaces. Many of these protests took place near the bridges and roads near university campuses. 

During clashes, a protester was shot by police at point-blank range in Sai Wan Ho, and hours later, a man was set on fire in Ma On Shan during an argument about the demonstrations.

Protesters — many of them students — retreated onto university campuses to rest and regroup before continuing to protest. 

These events set the stage for the clashes over the next several days. 

 

Monday, November 11: For the first time during protests, police fired tear gas at a university campus.

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AP Photo/Kin Cheung

Several universities, including Chinese University and Polytechnic University, canceled classes amid the unrest that was taking place across the city, giving way for eager students to join the demonstrations. 

According to The South China Morning Post, police entered the Chinese University campus through a bridge near Tolo Harbor at 8 a.m. local time and set up a blockade there. Tear gas was fired by another group of officers stationed nearby at 11 a.m. local time.

Over the course of the day, over 100 rounds of tear gas and rubber bullets were launched at protesters on the campus, according to The Post. Protesters hurled bricks and molotov cocktails. At least three people were arrested. 

Jane, which is not her real name, is a 29-year-old PhD student and teaching assistant at CUHK who was at the university as protests erupted and, later in the week, intensified. She requested anonymity for fear of reprisal at work.

"My main role during protests was doing crisis management," she told Insider. "Each morning, myself and other administrators have a meeting and catch up on information about what situation we're facing or if any students are having health problems or legal problems. After this meeting, we would go down and stay with our students."

She said many on campus felt that police instigated the clashes on campus by "suddenly" storming the campus. 

 

Tuesday, November 12: Clashes at CUHK escalated to levels unseen.

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AP Photo

Jane told Insider that things began to intensify on Tuesday.

"Students stayed on campus overnight," Jane said. Some students, exhausted from the day's events, slept on the ground of a nearby sports field

Protesters littered nearby streets with bricks and disrupted morning commutes. Police responded by firing tear gas and rubber bullets. 

"That morning, myself and several teachers went back to the streets. At that point, the police were still there," Jane said. "All of the students went down [to the university gates] on Tuesday to try and protect the school."

She said she and other faculty tried to quell the violence.

"I went down to the bridge at around 3 p.m. and stood between the police and my students," she said. "I tried to contact the administrators because at that point police were using tear gas guns that were pointed towards us."

CUHK president Rocky Tuan Sung-chi visited the campus in the evening to mediate between police and protesters. 

 

 

 

On Tuesday, protesters barricading themselves inside the university and using weapons scavenged from the campus.

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AP Photo/Kin Cheung, File

Their weapons included bow and arrows, catapults, and Molotov cocktails.  

Police on Tuesday said they were working towards reaching a "peaceful solution" but the situation on the ground "[continued] to intensify."

"Such violence has reached a deadly level, posing a serious threat to Police officers and everyone at scene," police said in a statement. 

 

 

 

Wednesday, November 13: Foreign students began to return home.

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AP Photo/Ng Han Guan

Clashes with police continued through the night.

By Wednesday, surrounding public transportation was suspended and roads were closed off, isolating the university area and exacerbating tensions. 

Protesters piled onto empty roads and again faced off with police, who fired tear gas at crowds that had gathered. Many used CUHK as a base to collect supplies and plan a response. 

Police accused protesters of turning CUHK into a "weapons factory." 

Foreign students began fleeing Hong Kong as violence continued on their campus. Those who stayed on campus continued to fight.

"The students were in a highly emotional state," Jane said. "They wanted to stay on campus until police disappeared. They wanted to win."

Police said their actions were to protect public safety.

"There is only one goal in our operation – to prevent anyone from throwing objects onto the highway as a safeguard for all road users," Senior Superintendent Wong Wai-shun said in a press briefing on Wednesday.

 

 

Thursday, November 14: Clashes at CUHK began to wind down.

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Anthony Kwan/Getty Images

Protests at CUHK began to wind down on Thursday as clashes began to intensify at places in other parts of the city, shifting police and protester attention.

Police say a 70-year-old man was clearing bricks from a road in Sheung Shui on Wednesday when he was hit in the head with a brick. The man was pronounced dead on Thursday, fueling police anger.  

 

Some protesters began to make their way towards PolyU, where another round of violent clashes with police would soon begin.

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AP Photo/Kin Cheung

Harvey was one of those students. He was at PolyU on Thursday. 

Protests at PolyU began to play out in a similar way to protests at CUHK — demonstrations taking place near the university began to intensify, with protesters setting up brick roadblocks and lighting street barricades on fire.

Protesters, many of them students, saw PolyU as a refuge away from the violence or a place to regroup.

Harvey told Insider that since classes at most universities were cancelled due to the chaos gripping the city, those who were still at PolyU were most likely preparing for clashes. 

"I was impressed by how organized protesters were," Harvey said. "Everyone was helping one another. Everyone who was on the campus at that point were probably protesters and we felt like we were all in this together."

Students practiced throwing Molotov cocktails, built barriers, and gathered supplies.

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ANTHONY WALLACE/AFP via Getty Images

PolyU is the third-largest university in Hong Kong. Thousands of students began to prepare the campus for clashes with police on Thursday as they had done at CUHK.

"You could feel the tension on the campus," Harvey said.  

The campus is also located less than 164 feet (50 meters) from a Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) base, adding to heightened calls for readiness. 

Piles of bricks were laid out on roads leading to the campus. Chairs, umbrellas, and other objects were piled by students near university entrances to create a blockade.

Police fired tear gas near the university on Thursday. Police said protesters had "maliciously blocked roads" and "threw bricks and hard objects" at volunteers who had come to clean up roads.  

 

Friday, November 15, 2019: Protesters emptied out of CUHK.

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AP Photo/Vincent Yu

Police reopened parts of the Tolo Highway that had been blocked during clashes. 

"Police appeal to all members of the public not to throw any object off the bridge or conduct any illegal acts posing threat to road users," police said in a statement. 

Sandra, which is not her real name, is a protester actively organizing and participating in protests. She requested anonymity because of fears for her safety. 

She was at CUHK on Friday from about 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. local time.

"When I got there, students were discussing whether to leave or stay," she told Insider.

She said that hygiene on the campus was "pretty bad," and those who were left at that point were exhausted by the end of the week-long clashes.

"The bridge smelled awful," she said. "It smelled of gasoline." 

"Students also couldn't shower because of toxins in the air and couldn't drink from the tap," she added.

Police said that around 7:45 p.m. local time, protesters blocked the highway once more. 

By 10:15 p.m., university students left the campus through the Number 2 bridge which connected to the highway. According to South China Morning Post, most protesters at CUHK changed clothes and were able to hitch rides from dozens of drivers who drove up to the gates.

By 10:45 p.m. local time, the campus appeared eerily empty, with boxes of supplies seemingly abandoned.

 

 

With many students from CUHK now at PolyU, they knew what to expect and began to prepare for new clashes with police.

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AP Photo/Kin Cheung

Police berated protesters over their methods, saying the city had become "seriously sick" due to shifting protest methods. 

"University campuses are just like cancer cells," John Tse Chun-chung, chief superintendent of the police's public relations branch, said in a press briefing on Thursday.

Hong Kong's High Court on Friday banned people from circulating protest information and incitements to violence on websites or mobile phone apps.

Sandra was at PolyU on Friday from about 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. local time. She said when she arrived, students had already set up "checkpoints" where they searched people coming in and out of the school. 

"They were producing Molotov cocktails and preparing for clashes with police at any point," she said.

 

Saturday, November 16: Police surrounded the campus and began to shoot tear gas near PolyU.

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AP Photo/Achmad Ibrahim

On Saturday, members of China's military garrison stationed next to PolyU came out of their barracks and made a rare public appearance near PolyU to help clean up roadblocks. This act fueled speculation that China might be gearing up its army to quell protests. 

Hong Kong's government told CNN that the government had not requested the help, rather that it was done on a "purely voluntary" basis. 

Police advanced towards PolyU around 10:30 p.m. local time with tear gas. Protesters responded with Molotov cocktails in clashes that continued past midnight. 

Sunday, November 17: Clashes reach boiling point.

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AP Photo/Vincent Yu

Protesters set fire to the entrance of PolyU to stop riot police who had stationed themselves outside the perimeter of the campus from entering.

Police formed a barrier around the university and would not allow anyone to leave. 

According to The Guardian, people who tried to leave were tear-gassed or arrested. 

Jane and a few friends went to PolyU to help her students who had migrated there, but at that point, the campus was sealed off. She was at PolyU from Monday, November 18 to Wednesday, November 20. 

"My position was trying to rescue students from inside PolyU," Jane said. "Police blocked every single way. Myself and five or six other people were trying to rescue them." 

She said she went to the school on her own volition, risking her own life because she cared about the wellbeing of her students.

"I treasure them," she said. 

 

 

Police sprayed protesters with blue dye.

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AP Photo/Ng Han Guan

Police faced off against protesters and fired tear gas and water cannons filled with blue dye which stains clothes and irritates the skin.

And protesters shot arrows and other weapons at police.

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AP Photo/Kin Cheung

Protesters at that point had barricaded themselves in the university. 

According to The Washington Post, protesters have accumulated a range of weapons to combat police, including javelins and bows and arrows that were likely taken from the university's athletic department. 

On Sunday morning, police say an officer was injured in the leg after a protester fired off a bow and arrow near PolyU.

Tear gas was fired.

Protestors react as police fire tear gas at Hong Kong Polytechnic University in Hong Kong, Sunday, Nov. 17, 2019. (AP Photo/Vincent Yu)


Associated Press

In a statement, university authorities said they were "gravely concerned that the spiraling radical illicit activities will cause not only a tremendous safety threat on campus, but also class suspension over an indefinite period of time."

And protesters used a variety of means to protect themselves.

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AP Photo/Ng Han Guan

Police threatened to use live rounds if protesters did not "stop assaulting the police using cars, gas bombs and bows and arrows."

Police said protesters set fire to the flyover connecting the university campus to the Hung Hom metro station.

"Police have repeatedly urged members of the public to leave the vicinity of the Hong Kong Polytechnic University immediately," police said.

"Anyone who enters or stays on the campus and assists rioters in any way will risk committing the offence of 'Taking Part in a Riot,'" the police said, an offense which carried up to 10 years in prison. 

Monday, November 18: Police stormed the campus in the morning.

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AP Photo/Ng Han Guan

A surreal scene emerged of protesters facing off against police on university grounds. 

Police said "a large gang of rioters" gathered near the PolyU campus and fired Molotov cocktails at police and set things ablaze. 

"Multiple explosions were heard," they said. 

Police responded with tear gas. 

Police claimed they did not "raid" the PolyU campus, rather they were trying to protect public safety because of explosives and fires on campus which posed a threat.

 

Riot police fired more tear gas.

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AP Photo/Ng Han Guan

Police said that at 8 a.m. local time, a large group of masked rioters suddenly charged at police with Molotov cocktails and other weapons. Police say they warned protesters before they fired tear gas in response. 

Harvey was not at the PolyU campus on Monday, though he told Insider that he believed protesters at both CUHK and at PolyU were merely responding to police action. 

"Escalating actions from the protester side was in response to escalating actions from the police side," Harvey said. "They started shooting tear gas almost with no consequences." 

"It was chaos again at PolyU similar to CUHK," said Jane, who was on the campus during the clashes.

"When I got to PolyU, you already couldn't enter because entrances were blocked," Jane said.

 

 

Police appealed to protesters to "put an end to violence," but many were trapped.

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AP Photo/Achmad Ibrahim

Protesters inside the campus faced arrest by armed police if they left the campus. But clashes became increasingly more violent on campus. 

"Police once again appeal to masked rioters to put an end to violence, listen to Police instructions and leave the campus in an orderly manner," police said in a statement. 

 

 

 




 

 

 

 

Some students who tried to escape faced arrest. Many were injured in the scuffle.

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AP Photo/Achmad Ibrahim

"I went to find some rope to see if it was suitable to help people escape the campus. Then I contacted students inside to help them escape and avoid arrest," Jane said. 

"It hurt me to see blood on the floor," she said. "But at that point I could only tell protesters to calm down and that they can trust me and help them find a way out."

 

Students found unconventional ways to try and escape the campus.

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AP Photo/Kin Cheung

Jane said PolyU's location made it easier for protesters to escape.

"The new campus of PolyU is near a hospital and the highway, so if protesters tried to escape and we could have a car waiting and police would not be able to chase us because were able to drive down the highway," Jane said. 

"Another way protesters tried to escape was through the sewers," she continued. "They were risking their lives because there were lots of toxins [from tear gas] underground. From the students I helped, around 10 students got out that way, though many ended up in the hospital."

Overall, Jane says, she and her group of friends were able to help "50 or 60 people." 

 

Students were physically exhausted.

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AP Photo/Achmad Ibrahim

Sandra was at PolyU on Monday, November 18. She said that protesters she spoke to were exhausted but determined. 

"I would say that a majority of students wanted to leave the campus at this point," Sandra said. 

"They were simply exhausted," she added, "but the consensus was that they wanted to leave together, they didn't want to leave anyone behind."

Sandra said the fight between protesters and police at PolyU did not last as long as clashes at CUHK because they soon ran out of supplies due to the police siege.

"Many people that managed to leave wanted to stay but knew they weren't capable because of their physical and mental state," Jane said. 

Jane said she worked overnight for "three or four days" trying to get students out. 

"My students inside were tired," she said.

 

Several portions of the campus were set on fire.

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AP Photo/Kin Cheung

Leaving the campus in disarray.

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AP Photo/Raf Wober

Exhausted protesters attempted a mass exodus from the campus. Many were arrested.

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AP Photo/Achmad Ibrahim

Over 1,000 people were detained on Monday. 

Tuesday, November 19: Medics treated several people who had been protesting for days.

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AP Photo/Achmad Ibrahim

Wednesday, November 20: For some, medical evacuation was the only safe option of escape.

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AP Photo/Ng Han Guan

As police stood stationed nearby, continuing to surround the campus.

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AP Photo/Ng Han Guan

 

 

 

PolyU President Teng Jin-Guang promised that he or his staff would go with the remaining protesters to the police station to make sure their cases were handled fairly.

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AP Photo/Ng Han Guan

By Wednesday, debris and graffiti littered the campus. Only a handful of students were left inside.

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AP Photo/Vincent Yu

Once protesters had left, the extent of damage was visible. Many areas of the university had been utilized by protesters.

Protesters walk in a gymnasium on the campus of the Polytechnic University in Hong Kong, Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2019. A small group of protesters refused to leave Hong Kong Polytechnic University, the remnants of hundreds who took over the campus for several days. They won't leave because they would face arrest. Police have set up a cordon around the area to prevent anyone from escaping. (AP Photo/Ahmad Ibrahim)


Associated Press

Nearby, workers began cleanup efforts.

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AP Photo/Ng Han Guan

And major roads that had been damaged or burned by protesters reopened.

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AP Photo/Ng Han Guan

Thursday, November 21: As the dust settled, many of the remaining protesters emerged from the campus.

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AP Photo/Vincent Thian

A small number of protesters continued to resist pleas for surrender. Many left their mark on the campus.

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AP Photo/Vincent Thian

Friday, November 22: Only the last and most determined protesters remained holed up inside.

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(AP Photo/Vincent Thian)

Saturday, November 23: The remaining protesters hid their identities and refused to leave.

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AP Photo/Achmad Ibrahim

Sunday, November 24: Two protesters identified as R-O-N, left, and Cheung, right, held a press conference.

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AP Photo/Achmad Ibrahim

They stood behind banners that said: "Trapped students" and "trapped citizens."

 

Monday, November 25: Protesters continued a quiet weekend and focused on another issue: local district elections.

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AP Photo/Ng Han Guan

Pro-democracy candidates in Hong Kong made huge gains on Monday following local district elections that witnessed an unprecedented voter turnout.  

By 2 p.m. on Monday local time, pro-democracy politicians reclaimed 17 out of 18 districts which were previously under pro-Beijing control, according to The South China Morning Post. This translates to 344 of the 452 local seats.

A record 2.94 million people voted this election, equal to about 71 percent of eligible voters and more than double 2016's turnout. 

Democracy leaders said these votes signaled growing support for protests and could add pressure on Chief Executive Carrie Lam.

Protests began to gather outside PolyU to beg police to allow the remaining protesters inside to leave without arrest.

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AP Photo/Kin Cheung

Tuesday, November 26: Medics prepared supplies for the handful of students taking refuge on campus.

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AP Photo/Vincent Thian

Wednesday, November 27: Faculty and medics sifted through the debris to find any remaining protesters. As of 6 p.m. local time, there were believed to be no protesters left.

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ANTHONY WALLACE/AFP via Getty Images

Academics and volunteers prepared for an unprecedented cleanup job, as nearly two weeks of campus clashes had finally come to an end

 

Thursday, November 28: Police entered the campus to gather evidence.

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Billy H.C. Kwok/Getty Images

Authorities entered the campus on November 28

Police dusted bottles for fingerprints and collected evidence. 

 

 

 

Friday, November 29: PolyU reopens, but the violent imagery remains.

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Zhu Xiang/Xinhua via Getty Images

Police on Friday said they had "removed all dangerous goods and handled scenes of crime" at PolyU.

Police said Friday they seized nearly 4,000 Molotov cocktails, 1,339 explosives, and hundreds of bottles of corrosive liquids and weapons. 

"The cordon surrounding the PolyU has been lifted," they said. "The campus has been handed over to PolyU's management for their further actions."

It's unclear what happens next. But for the protesters that spoke to Insider last month, they remain committed to continuing the fight. 

"We are approaching this weird stage where I'm not sure if we are making progress towards our protest demands," said Harvey. "But because of this, I imagine protests will last into the new year." 

"We can't back down," said Sandra. "We have reached the point of no return."

"The main reason people continue protesting is that the Chinese government has already crossed the line," said Jane.

"As a Hong Kong resident born and raised, I cannot stand watching China try and break the 'One Country, Two Systems' in Hong Kong because it is unacceptable," she added, referring to a unique constitutional arrangement that gives Hong Kong a relative degree of legal and economic freedom. 

"Another part that is becoming bigger now is the emotional drive," she added. "I have so many students who were arrested or hurt. I cannot just stand back. This is my only home. This is not only about my fate — it's about honor and freedom for Hong Kong."

Read the original article on Insider