After five consecutive days of heavy protest action and traffic chaos, Hongkongers turned out in droves on Saturday to clear bricks and other objects blocking the main roads near some of the city’s university campuses.
Responding to online requests from some pro-establishment figures, hundreds of residents took down barricades constructed with metal railings, bricks and other obstacles and placed them on the roadside and in trucks near Hong Kong, Baptist, Chinese and Polytechnic universities, the South China Morning Post reported.
Black-clad protesters argued with the residents and some scuffles broke out during the clearing of Pok Fu Lam Road outside the University of Hong Kong.
At about 3.45 pm, about a dozen protesters sat in front of one of the barricades as residents dismantled it, but they later shifted to overpasses connected to the university and yelled at the residents. At one point, they threw burning objects onto the road.
In Kowloon Tong, near Baptist University, about 50 soldiers from the People’s Liberation Army’s barracks were deployed at about 4.30 pm to help pro-government supporters take down roadblocks so traffic could resume on Renfrew Road and Hereford Road.
The soldiers from the garrison, who are confined to the barracks under Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, conducted a lightning-quick removal of bricks and debris near their base, AFP reported.
Chinese state media has repeatedly warned that troops could be deployed to quell an unprecedented crisis in the semi-autonomous city that has entered its sixth month.
Confirming the brief deployment on Weibo, China’s Twitter-like social media platform, the PLA said it acted to open a debris-strewn road outside their Kowloon Tong barracks to traffic, winning “applause from residents” in the process.
The last time soldiers assisted in the city was in 2018 to clean up after a typhoon.
A spokesman for Hong Kong’s embattled government said the troop movement had not been requested by city authorities but was instead a “voluntary community activity initiated by themselves.”
But not everyone appreciated the PLA’s impromptu act of community service. Reacting to the sight of PLA troops in the streets of Hong Kong on Sunday, democracy activist Joshua Wong urged Germany to stop military training assistance to China, a German daily reported.
Speaking to the top-selling Bild newspaper, Wong said: “It makes me furious that the German Bundeswehr is apparently helping to train Chinese soldiers. Given the riots in Hong Kong, the Defense Ministry should have ended this program long ago.”
Months of unrest
Hong Kong has been plagued by more than five months of unrest, sparked by the now-withdrawn extradition bill, but the protests have since turned into a broader anti-government movement.
In escalated action this week, protesters paralyzed traffic by setting up roadblocks on Hong Kong’s main thoroughfares, including at the Cross-Harbour Tunnel in Hung Hom, and occupying some university campuses, said the South China Post report.
Most residents involved in the Pok Fu Lam clearance operation believed setting up roadblocks was an unreasonable move.
“I think everyone is upset, because our community is blocked off. I have an 18-month-old and she hasn’t been able to go outside, so I just thought I would come down and see what I could do,” said a resident, surnamed Tam, 32.
Another resident, Tim Plunkett, who was also out clearing bricks, said: “It feels like it’s definitely escalated. I sympathize with the protesters and I understand the rationale, but I think it’s shifted and gone too far.”
He said he adopted a more negative stance on the protests when someone threw a garbage receptacle in front of a minibus he was traveling in. “I have two young kids,” he said.
HKU alumna Jessica Poon, 49, was shocked by the sight of protesters throwing objects from the overpass. “This is unprecedented, we don’t have any tear gas, why did they throw this at us? We are not fighting them.”
Three masked protesters appeared on the scene in the early afternoon to watch.
“For me, it’s totally fine. We don’t want any conflict with citizens. They are not the audience or our target, but it’s best if they don’t interrupt,” said a 20-year-old protester. “Let’s see how this ends up. We may decide to rebuild it.”
However, other protesters were not so tolerant of the residents’ efforts. About a dozen of them began burning charcoal, briefly filling the road with smoke to drive away the residents. Shortly afterwards they began fortifying their blockades as a few residents continued clearing away bricks.
At Baptist University, the atmosphere was calm as protesters had abandoned their barriers when residents appeared on the scene to clear them. Office worker Tim Leung, 45, said he had come to “restore peace.”
“I don’t live in the district and only came here after seeing online calls. I am upholding the rights of other road users to take this road to get to places and go about their lives.”