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Protesters leave besieged campus

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The female, who is over 18 and not a student at the university, has been given medical care and counselors are trying to coax her to surrender

BESIEGED: A shattered window is seen during a search operation at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University. Picture: Reuters

Faculty teams searched through Hong Kong’s Polytechnic University yesterday and found a young woman in weak condition, saying that they believe all other anti-government protesters have left the campus after a week-long police siege.

Embattled Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam, meanwhile, refused to offer any concessions to anti-government protesters despite a local election trouncing on Sunday, saying she will instead accelerate dialogue and identify ways to address societal grievances.

Polytechnic University Vice President Alexander Wai said he can’t rule out the possibility that some other protesters may still be hiding in the vast campus, but that “the possibility is not very high”.

The search came more than a week after protesters used the university as a base for clashes with police outside. The holdouts were trying to avoid arrest.

Wai said the female, who is over 18 and not a student at the university, has been given medical care and counselors are trying to coax her to surrender.

Lam told reporters that the central government in Beijing didn’t blame her for the outcome that gave the pro-democracy bloc a landslide victory with 90% of the seats and control of 17 out of 18 district councils.

Nearly three million voters cast ballots in a record turnout for an election that was viewed as a barometer of public support for more than five months of pro-democracy protests. The government’s refusal to compromise despite the outcome could spark more unrest at a time when the semi-autonomous Chinese territory has plunged into its first recession in a decade.

Lam said Sunday’s election may have reflected unhappiness with the government’s handling of the unrest but also showed that many people want a stop to violence.

“Let me just stress that after these five-six months, Hong Kong people have realised very clearly that Hong Kong could no longer tolerate this chaotic situation,” Lam said at her weekly news conference. “Please help us to maintain the relative calm and peace that we have seen in the last week or so and provide a good basis for Hong Kong to move forward.”

A major road tunnel near Polytechnic will reopen today, a senior city official announced. It has been closed for two weeks after protesters blocked it and set the toll booths on fire.

Lam said that when she withdrew an extradition bill in September that had sparked the protests, she also gave a detailed response to the protesters’ other demands, including free elections for the city’s leader and legislature and a probe into accusations of police brutality.

The government hopes to take advantage of the current lull in violence to accelerate public dialogue and set up an independent review committee to find solutions to deep-seated societal issues, she said.

“The next step to go forward is really, as you have put it, to engage the people. And we have started public dialogue with the community,” Lam said. “But unfortunately, with the unstable environment and a chaotic situation, I could not do more on that sort of engagement. I hope that the environment will allow me to do it now.”

Some pro-establishment figures have pointed fingers at Lam for their loss, while the pro-democracy camp has asked her to step down.

Protesters saw the extradition bill as an erosion of their rights promised when the former British colony returned to Chinese control in 1997. The demonstrations have since expanded into a protest over what they see as Beijing’s growing interference in the city.

Some analysts said China’s ruling Communist Party isn’t likely to soften its stand on Hong Kong. Chinese media have muted reports on the poll outcome, focusing instead on how pro-Beijing candidates were harassed and the need to restore law and order.

Beijing is treading cautiously partly to avoid jeopardising trade talks with the United States. It also faces pressure from planned US legislation that could derail Hong Kong’s special trade status and sanction Hong Kong and China officials found to violate human rights.

China’s foreign ministry on Monday summoned US Ambassador Terry Branstad for a second time to demand Washington block the bipartisan legislation on Hong Kong. Vice Minister Zheng Zeguang warned that the US would “bear all the consequences that arise” if the bill is signed by President Donald Trump.

Trump has not committed to signing it and has 10 days from the time of its passage last week to veto it. If he does not do so, it automatically becomes law. Congress could also override a veto with a two-thirds majority vote in both houses.

Derek Mitchell, a former US ambassador to Myanmar who heads the Washington-based National Democratic Institute, denied accusations that it had funded or supported the Hong Kong protesters. China has accused foreign forces and money of being a “black hand” behind the protests.

Mitchell, speaking in Hong Kong, said citizens had spoken “loudly and clearly” in the local election and that the government must respond to prevent the protests from sliding into an abyss.

“The ball is in the court of the government here and authorities in Beijing,” he said.

In a boost to the city, Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba listed on the Hong Kong stock exchange yesterday, rising nearly 7% in a strong start before losing most of its gains later in the morning. Alibaba’s share sale of at least $11.3 billion in its secondary listing is the world’s biggest this year.