A major tunnel in Hong Kong reopened on Wednesday and a week-long police siege of a nearby university appeared to be winding down, closing one of the more violent chapters of the city’s anti-government protests.
The Cross-Harbour Tunnel, which links Hong Kong Island to the rest of the city, had been closed for two weeks after protesters blocked the approach with tons of debris and set the toll booths on fire.
A search of the Hong Kong Polytechnic campus the previous day found just one woman, in weak condition, and a senior university official said it was unlikely anyone else remained.
On Wednesday morning, as Chinese soldiers went through drills nearby the university, Polytechnic officials said a few people might still be hiding in the urban campus, trying to avoid arrest. Police have cordoned off the area to try to prevent anyone from escaping.
Polytechnic University pice president Alexander Wai, who led a search of the campus by seven teams, said he could not rule out that some people remained, but “the possibility is not very high”.
Attention in Hong Kong has shifted to city leader Carrie Lam’s response to a major loss in local elections on Sunday. The results were seen as a public rebuke of her tough line on the protests.
Lam, after issuing only a written statement Monday, offered no concessions to anti-government protesters, saying only that she would accelerate dialogue and identify ways to address societal grievances.
She said the central government in Beijing did not blame her for the election setback, and that while it may have reflected unhappiness with the government’s handling of the unrest, it also showed many people wanted an end to the 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,” Ms Lam told reporters after a weekly meeting with advisers. “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.”
Her refusal to compromise could spark more unrest at a time when the semi-autonomous Chinese territory has plunged into its first recession in a decade.
The streets around Polytechnic were the scenes of fierce clashes with police 10 days ago. Protesters used the campus as a base, while shutting down access to the Cross-Harbour Tunnel.
Teams searching the university had found gasoline bombs and other dangerous items, a statement from the Polytechnic said.
The pro-democracy bloc won control of 17 out of 18 district councils in Sunday’s election, which was seen as a barometer of public support for more than five months of pro-democracy protests.
Ms 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,” Ms 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 Ms 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 on 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.