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A protester hurls a lit Molotov cocktail at the police outside Hong Kong Polytechnic University in China, where demonstrations escalated in recent days.

Kyodo via AP Images

Violent campus clashes between protesters and police stir fears for Hong Kong universities

The once-peaceful protests in Hong Kong over the erosion of the territory’s autonomous status within China and delays in expected democratic reforms escalated last week into pitched battles between protesters and police on multiple university campuses. At one site, several senior school officials who are scientists sought to negotiate a truce amid rubber bullets and the haze of tear gas.

The confrontations wound down early this week, but academics worry about the future of the city’s universities. “The current situation will make it difficult for us to recruit top-quality staff in the future,” says Sun Kwok, a Hong Kong–born astronomer who was dean of science at the University of Hong Kong (HKU) for 10 years. He fears it may also be tough to fill HKU’s graduate schools, where most students come from mainland China or other countries. The science faculty recruits about 120 grad students each year, and filling those slots “might be quite difficult,” says Matthew
Evans, HKU’s dean of science.

Kwok adds that authorities appear to blame university students for instigating the demonstrations. “If this results in increased control by the government on the universities, it could lead to an erosion of academic freedom,” says Kwok, who is now at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada.

As Science went to press, an estimated 100 hard-core activists remained holed up on the campus of Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU). Calm had returned elsewhere. Scientists and officials at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK), HKU, and the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology say that on their campuses, electrical power and internet service continued, and there were no fires within buildings and no losses of culture collections or lab animals. “We had zero damage to our buildings,” Evans says.

Hong Kong universities had escaped disruption during the massive demonstrations in the city that started in early June, touched off by a proposed bill to ease extradition of suspected criminals to mainland China for trial. The extradition bill was withdrawn on 23 October. But by then, protesters were demanding broader democratic reforms and independent investigations of police brutality.

In the second week of November, protesters escalated tactics, using perches on hilly university campuses to hurl debris onto adjacent highways. They may have thought they could take advantage of a long-standing policy that police “do not come onto [a] campus unless they have reason to suspect some criminal act has come about or have an appropriate warrant,” Evans says.

Radical activists commandeered CUHK, even demanding that visitors to the campus show identification to pass blockades, according to an open letter from the vice chancellor, Rocky Tuan, a biomedical scientist who was pictured trying to negotiate a truce on a pedestrian bridge leading to the campus last week. After masked protesters left CUHK and other schools to gather at PolyU at the end of last week, a police officer on the edge its campus was wounded by an arrow and the situation devolved into a fiery showdown. Many graduate students have fled the city.

Despite the chaos, researchers were generally able to keep their studies on track, says Chan King Ming, a CUHK aquatic toxicologist. He reached his lab to feed zebrafish. Barring further upheaval, several Hong Kong scientists told Science they believe research activities will resume smoothly, if not immediately. Although classes are now suspended or being taught online, most schools plan to return to a normal schedule when the next semester begins in January 2020.

Ensuring Hong Kong’s long-term tranquility requires a political solution that is beyond the scope of what universities can do, school officials say. “The government must take the lead with swift and concrete action to resolve this political deadlock and to restore safety and public order now,” the heads of Hong Kong’s nine publicly funded universities wrote in a joint statement last week—before some of the most violent protests.

*Correction, 22 November, 9:35 a.m.: The caption of a photo in the slideshow has been updated to correctly identify Dennis Ng.