Schools closed as protests put chokehold on Hong Kong

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Pro-democracy protesters challenging China’s rule of Hong Kong choked the city with barricades and rallies for a fourth straight day Thursday, as the police force drafted in reinforcements and Chinese state media fuelled speculation of a curfew.

The five-month crisis entered a new phase on Monday when hardcore protesters embarked on a campaign to “blossom everywhere” across the international financial hub, in a bid to stretch police resources as thinly as possible.

Dressed in their signature black, the masked protesters set up barricades on roads, vandalised train stations, rampaged through shopping malls and orchestrated rolling confrontations with riot police in multiple locations.

Another element of the protesters’ tactical shift was to disrupt the city for consecutive days in a working week, switching from their long-running strategy of primarily protesting on weekends or in the evenings.

On Thursday, key arterial roads were again cut, many train services were suspended, schools were closed, lunchtime rallies were held in the business district and protesters occupied universities.

With the protesters showing no signs of relenting, the nearly 30,000-strong police force announced it was drafting in 100 prison guards and looking for other reinforcements.

“The ongoing riots… with their massive scale, simultaneous occurrence in various districts and grave severity of violence, make it necessary to strengthen the support for the police’s front-line officers,” a police spokesman said in a statement announcing the prison guards would be called in.

No other reinforcement measures were announced, although lawmaker Starry Lee, of the city’s biggest pro-Beijing party, urged the government to deploy auxiliary police officers.

The part-time volunteer force of civilians and ex-officers is usually used to direct traffic and control crowds at major outdoor sports or entertainment events.

The big fear for many in Hong Kong is that China will follow through on threats to deploy mainland troops.

While there was no suggestion in China on Thursday of the military being deployed, one of the most prominent state-run media outlets, the nationalistic Global Times, raised tensions with a report that a curfew was on the cards.

In an English post on its Twitter account, the Global Times said the Hong Kong government was looking to implement a weekend curfew, echoing unsubstantiated rumours online.

However the Global Times quickly deleted the tweet.

“I just checked how the information was obtained. My conclusion is that the information is not sufficient to support this exclusive news,” the Global Times’ editor, Hu Xijin, said in a subsequent tweet.

The protest movement began in June when millions of people took to the streets voicing anger at eroding freedoms under China, which has ruled the former British colony since 1997.

Protesters are demanding the right to freely elect their leaders, as well as an independent inquiry into alleged police brutality.

Insisting it will not compromise or buckle to the pressure, China has responded with warnings it is prepared to further curb freedoms, and that it wants tougher security measures in Hong Kong.

A commentary in the Communist Party mouthpiece, the People’s Daily, said Thursday strong measures were required to extinguish the violence.

“If you stand by when seeing a fire, it will burn everything. The best way is to put out the fire decisively before it spreads,” the newspaper said.

On Tuesday the People’s Daily signalled that local district elections due to be held on November 24 may be cancelled if the protesters do not back down.

But the protesters have repeatedly shown they won’t be intimidated.

On Thursday, office workers joined a lunchtime rally in the city’s financial hub shouting “Fight for Freedom, Stand with Hong Kong”, as they voiced support for the hardcore protesters on the frontlines.

“A lot of young people have been hurt… so we have to come out,” a legal worker who only gave her surname as Chan told AFP.

“They have sacrificed too much for us, so Hong Kongers must come out.”

Violence has intensified from both sides this week.

The government said nearly 70 people were hospitalised on Wednesday — two in a critical condition, including a 70-year-old man hit by a brick as he tried to clear a roadblock.

In a Facebook post, police accused “rioters” of shooting “arrows at several police officers who were patrolling” near Polytechnic University, where clashes have occurred this week.

At the university, protesters called for their own reinforcements as they signalled they were ready for more violence.

“Urgent! Poly is in a battle! Need people! Need supplies!” a post said on LIHKG — an online forum widely used by the largely leaderless movement.

Protesters built brick walls and barricades with cement and mortar, preparing for an expected police advance later in the day.

“I’m looking forward to the police coming,” said a black-clad protester who gave his name as Ah Fai.

“We’re not causing the problems, the troubles stem from the government.”