A ship from the Hong Kong police’s marine division emerged from the morning mist of Hong Kong’s Tolo Harbor at dawn on Wednesday and quietly berthed at a pier near the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) in the New Territories where a group of students carrying suitcases had been waiting anxiously to board.

The boat soon cast off for a destination said to be a police facility close to the city’s border with mainland China, after constables inspected the identity documents of the students as only mainlanders were allowed onboard.

The seemingly covert police evacuation operation was carefully planned and carried out in the early hours, when most of the black-clad protesters – local CUHK students and outsiders – were still sleeping under the stars on a footbridge leading to the main entrance of the campus after a night of fierce battles with riot police involving Molotov cocktails, tear gas canisters and rubber bullets.

Mainland students at CUHK queue up to board a police vessel at a pier close to their campus, which has been transformed into a battlefield. Photos: WeChat, Weibo

More ferry rides to safety would be arranged for remaining mainland students at CUHK, and the police also confirmed during a press briefing Wednesday afternoon that they had deployed a boat to help non-local students who wished to leave the campus since main roads were all barricaded and the nearby train station was shut amid widespread vandalism.

The numerous mainland students who study at tertiary institutions in Hong Kong are packing up and leaving, flustered by the ongoing chaos that has spilled over onto their campuses and inevitably affected their lives when many merely wanted to stay out of the raging altercations.

Even the most apolitical ones are now wondering in trepidation if their continued stay at CUHK and other universities would be safe, and some were urged by their concerned parents to return home immediately.

A view of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, in its calm days. The university used to draw in mainland students on the strength of its reputation and high ranking. Photo: Asia Times

Since Monday, mainland students also thronged the departure hall inside Hong Kong’s West Kowloon Station to board cross-boundary intercity bullet trains to Shenzhen and Guangzhou, after train services to two border checkpoints were suspended by the MTR Corp, the city’s subway operator, for safety reasons when debris and even petrol bombs were thrown onto open-air tracks.

One student who hailed from China’s eastern Zhejiang province told Asia Times that the CUHK’s high ranking – it was constantly ranked among the world’s top 50 by the prestigious British consultancy firm Quacquarelli Symonds – was the prime reason she chose to study here. But she said it was heart-wrenching to see what had overtaken her campus, with scenes resembling a battlefield choked with tear gas.

She also feared that they would become a collateral target when anti-government and anti-China emotions were running high.

A drawn-out face-off between protesters and a riot contingent since Monday has been renewed as students put up stiff resistance when police launched sorties to charge into the campus to stop radicals hurling objects onto nearby tracks and a busy highway.

At one point CUHK’s vice-chancellor Rocky Tuan was also tear-gassed when he tried to make peace and reconcile the conflicting demands from both sides.

Riot police stay on guard on a footbridge outside the CUHK campus on Wednesday evening. Photo: Facebook
Students set a fire on a pedestrian path leading to the entrance of the CUHK campus in a bid to stop the police from entering. Photo: RTHK

On Wednesday evening, CUHK announced that its council had decided to end the current semester and suspend all classes, having taking stock of the “fast deteriorating circumstance,” and soon its Shenzhen campus announced it would offer free accommodation to those who decided to flee the main campus in Hong Kong.

The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) also said its research park in Guangzhou would also receive mainland students. The Education University of Hong Kong arranged free buses to ferry mainland students to border checkpoints. The Baptist University is also offering a one-off subsidy of HK$1,000 (US$128) to all non-local students if they choose to leave the city.

Earlier, Beijing’s liaison office in Hong Kong issued a safety reminder to mainland students after an undergraduate at HKUST was roughed up by locals after they quibbled over politics. Yet the office has denied the ongoing efforts to assist mainland students were “evacuation operations.”

Various clansmen associations and pro-Beijing outfits have also arranged off-campus accommodation for affected students. It was also reported that Shenzhen’s official youth association reserved free beds at its cluster of 12 hostels throughout the city.

But a few have decided to stay, saying their local classmates and roommates were all nice to them and the developments in Hong Kong had been particularly blown up by Chinese state media and posts circulating on social media platforms, which looked more like fiction than the actual reality.

They said that, despite their mainland identity, they deeply identified with Hongkongers’ demands and also opposed the now-retracted China extradition bill, which stoked the mass protests since June.

About 300 Taiwanese students at CUHK have already returned home. Photo: Central News Agency, Taiwan

Meanwhile, Taiwan’s Central News Agency reported that the island’s semi-official office in Hong Kong had also arranged coaches and at least one China Airlines flight for Taiwanese students at CUHK and other universities to return to the island for free. More than 100 flew back to Taipei on Wednesday evening.

Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council said more than 1,000 Taiwanese students were enrolled at universities in Hong Kong in the current academic year and none had been hurt or arrested during the turmoil in recent months.

Read more: Global show of solidarity for HK protesters