Turmoil hit Hong Kong again Wednesday as anti-government protesters resumed their new tactic of inflicting as much disruption as possible to transportation networks during the working week. They also paralyzed the financial district, where remarkable scenes unfolded as police clashed with suited office workers who turned out in support of black-clad student activists.
Scores of bus services were canceled and train services along three major lines suspended after protesters damaged stations overnight and threw objects on the tracks. Three trains were also set on fire. The lengthy delays caused dangerous overcrowding and chaotic scenes at the stations that remained open, requiring police to maintain order.
Traffic on many key roads ground to a halt as protesters threw up barricades and other obstacles from the early morning, effectively cutting off several suburbs from the rest of the city. A 70-year-old man was reportedly hospitalized in critical condition after being hit on the head with a brick while attempting to clear obstructions. Many commuters waited hours for transportation.
Authorities came under fire for endangering children’s safety by keeping schools open amid the disruptions. Many schools defied the order to operate and suspended classes.
The Hospital Authority meanwhile warned that medical services would be affected and, citing safety concerns, the Jockey Club cancelled the evening race meeting—regarded as an extreme measure in racing-mad Hong Kong. Many stores, offices, banks and businesses were closed. Major finance and law firms encouraged their staff to leave work early or work from home.
Shortly after noon, office workers in Central, the financial district, began occupying roads for the third day running in support of the protests. Crowds chanted “Hongkongers, avenge!” and “Save our students!” The windows of a mainland Chinese-owned bank were smashed to applause from bystanders. White collar workers could be seen helping masked protesters erect barricades across major streets.
A tense standoff took place outside the Stock Exchange as riot police arrested three people before a furious crowd of mostly office workers. One of the arrested individuals was knocked unconscious.
Riot police also stormed the key intersection of Pedder Street and Queen’s Road, the heart of commercial Hong Kong, and made several arrests. Rachel, a young woman in business attire, stood sobbing uncontrollably. “My friend got arrested and I don’t know where he is,” she told TIME. “He was trying to runaway from the police and he got caught by them.”
Officers soon beat a retreat, however, followed by hostile, jeering crowds, who reoccupied roads as soon as police left.
“I can’t keep silent anymore. I was siting at home, watching the live [news] streams—it’s time to stand up,” said Andrew, 25, a recruiter.
“We’re here to support the students. If someone broke into your house, you’d fight back, that’s the situation,” said Eddie, 36, a financial services worker neatly attired in a suit.
Chris, a 22-year-old expatriate, told TIME: “I have no words, really. It’s sad that this is lunchtime on a weekday in Central. I’m kind of used to it by now, but it’s sad.”
The latest upheavals came after violent unrest across the territory on Monday and Tuesday. Hundreds have been arrested and scores injured in clashes with police since the start of the week. Two people were hospitalized in critical condition—one a protester shot by police, the other a man who was set on fire after arguing with a group of youths.
Unrest has been particularly intense at Hong Kong’s universities, with disturbances on several campuses. Hong Kong’s second-oldest university, the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK), spent much of Tuesday under palls of tear gas and smoke from fires as police and students battled through the day and night.
Students from other parts of Hong Kong came to reinforce protesters at CUHK and well-wishers donated medical supplies and food that were ferried overnight to the campus, where students remain in anticipation of further clashes. As darkness fell Wednesday, a student called out “Who here is a fire magician [thrower of petrol bombs], mentally ready for the big fight?” Many hands went up.
A 24-year-old clerk named Wong, who had brought supplies to the students, said: “The students are at war with our tyrannical government. If we don’t help them, bring some supplies over and show our support, they wont stand a chance.”
Local media reported the evacuation of around 80 mainland Chinese students from CUHK on Wednesday morning. Mainlanders have been frequently assaulted and intimidated by Hong Kong protesters. The Communist Youth League in Shenzhen, the Chinese city closest to Hong Kong, said it was offering free accommodation to mainland students fleeing the territory.
Taiwanese and other foreign students are also reportedly evacuating from the university, which has canceled classes for the rest of the semester. One exchange student told TIME that her university back in France had advised her to leave and her mother had bought her a plane ticket that morning.
At a media briefing on Wednesday afternoon, police officials said they suspected the university was being used as a weapons factory because of the hundreds of petrol bombs hurled at officers during the fighting—then highest number so far.
Hong Kong’s number two official, Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung, meanwhile called for calm. “No matter your values or your aims, this violence, destruction and attacking of others—these unlawful actions—are not ways to achieve your goals,” he said at a press conference Wednesday. “These are not solutions, and will not allow you to get what you want. The government reiterates that we have the determination, confidence and ability to stop the violence and chaos.”
Secretary for Security John Lee appealed for Hong Kong’s democracy movement to stop harboring violent radicals. “If you see violence and do not address it, then to an extent, you are indulging this violence,” he told media. “If this violence continues to be indulged, the consequences to Hong Kong society will be too dreadful to be imagined.”
Late Tuesday, the Liaison Office—Beijing’s representative in semi-autonomous Hong Kong—issued a statement expressing its “Strongest condemnation of the escalation of violent, destructive behavior” and called on the local administration to “use every necessary measure to stop the violence and chaos, restore order, arrest criminals, and seriously punish violent action.”
The statement came amid news that the Hong Kong government was preparing to transfer hardened prison officers, trained in handling prison riots, to the police in order to relieve the burden on a severely strained force. Local media also reported that hundreds of retired police officers were preparing to don their uniforms once again as violence escalates.
Hong Kong’s anti-government rebellion is now in its fifth month and represents the most serious challenge in decades to Beijing. Protesters are demanding greater political freedom for the enclave, with many advocating secession from China, to which Hong Kong was retroceded in 1997 after 156 years as a British colony.
—With reporting by Amy Gunia and Hillary Leung/Hong Kong