Hong Kong had a rare second consecutive day of calm with relatively peaceful protests while the government handed a goody to motorists, pledging temporary free use of the Cross-Harbour Tunnel soon, with both moves seen as conciliatory gestures ahead of district council elections on Sunday.
On Thursday night, the police siege at Polytechnic University appeared to edge closer to an end as more than 20 protesters left the campus, leaving dozens of diehards still holed up at the site where radicals and riot police clashed violently last Sunday.
Since police surrounded the Hung Hom campus, which sits next to the tunnel, about 1,000 people have already walked out through checkpoints. Among them, roughly 300 were aged below 18, who had their personal information recorded by police before being allowed to go home. The rest had been arrested.
The city's No 2 official, Matthew Cheung Kin-chung, said the toll booths at the tunnel that connects Hung Hom to Causeway Bay had been "completely destroyed" and had to be "almost entirely rebuilt". It would also take time to repair the electronic equipment, he added.
"But there is no reason to not resume service just because of the problems with the booths," he said.
The government could stop charging fees temporarily once it was safe to reopen the tunnel, he added. Tolls range from HK$8 (US$1) to HK$30.
On Thursday morning, only a small number of protesters responded to online calls to "paralyse" the city by disrupting road traffic and rail services.
At the Central business district, about 300 people gathered during lunch time at the atrium of the International Financial Centre mall to show support for those holed up inside PolyU.
"I came out to help keep the spirit of the movement alive," said Bella, 26, who works in the financial industry. "I did not think it was a smart move to get inside PolyU in the first place, but now that we've got to this stage we'll provide all the support we can."
The turnout at Central was much smaller than at its peak last week, when thousands gathered on the streets for successive days.
In the evening, several hundreds staged a sit-in inside Yuen Long's Yoho mall to mark four months since a mob of about 100 people stormed into the nearby MTR station and indiscriminately attacked people with sticks and iron rods. Protesters were angry police took a long time to arrive and when they did, the attackers had fled.
Among those present then was Martin Chan, a civil servant who has attended a protest on the 21st of every month since the attack.
"I still remember how police left Yuen Long residents who were under attack and seeking help. They only reappeared 39 minutes later," he said, adding he did not fear being arrested for taking part in an unauthorised assembly.
Eve Wong, 14, was also at the sit-in but said he told his family he was out with his friends.
"I just want to come here to support the movement and do my share," he said.
At about 8.45pm, a crowd of more than 100 protesters started to march from the mall onto the main roads of Yuen Long but riot police showed up soon after and urged them to keep to the pavements. Some responded by hurling abuse at the officers but nothing more came of the stand-off and protesters dispersed before 10pm.
On social media, there were calls for protesters not to block roads on Sunday and the days before for fear they could be arrested and thus unable to vote. Officials have also appealed to protesters not to paralyse public transport to allow the election to take place.
The elections are widely seen as a de facto referendum on the government and the results would be a gauge on the level of support enjoyed by the anti-government movement that has rocked the city for nearly six months, sparked by the now-withdrawn extradition bill.
At PolyU, many diehard protesters were hiding from public view to rest. Some chose to sleep on the higher floors of building.
A black-clad protester, who said he is under 18, missed home badly.
Under a deal reached by education figures and police, anyone aged below 18 could go home after officers record their personal information. But the police could still pursue criminal liabilities in the future.
"I can't take any chances of having my name taken," he said, adding he did not want to have a criminal record.
Another protester, in his early 20s, was still looking for a way to avoid capture on his seventh day at PolyU. He said he neither understood nor cared about politics before the protest movement erupted in June. But he soon realised "nothing much can be achieved through peaceful means".
Another protester, 25, has no regrets about entering PolyU hours before police laid siege to the campus on Sunday evening.
"I would have regretted not coming," said the man, who works in the engineering industry.
He had been on the protest front lines to help the injured and stressed he had never attacked police. All he wanted was to do was to protect young people, said the man who revealed he was a Christian.
City University's President Way Kuo arrived at PolyU on Thursday afternoon to look for two of his students but left after failing to find them.
PolyU Vice-President Alex Wai Ping-kong said he did not know how many people remained inside the campus.
"We know that some of those who stayed had diarrhoea and stomach aches and were taken away by ambulances," Wai said.
He did some cleaning work at a canteen on the campus and said the poor hygiene meant no food could be served there. He revealed that almost all laboratories had been broken into and that "dangerous chemicals" were missing.
A check by the Post showed at least 20 laboratories had been ransacked. A least three stored flammable or explosive chemicals, while others stored toxic or corrosive substances. It remained unclear whether the materials had been used to make petrol bombs.
Separately, Chinese University confirmed that its vice-chancellor Rocky Tuan Sung-chi had been admitted to hospital.
"Professor Tuan is ill and he is taking a rest and is recovering," a university spokesman said.
The Post learned that Tuan has been at the Prince of Wales Hospital since last weekend. He was at the campus Tuesday last week during violent clashes between protesters and police to mediate between them. He and other leaders from the university were seen running away from tear gas fired by police.
Education minister Kevin Yeung Yun-hung said he supported schools that punished students who blocked roads and disrupted MTR services.
Meanwhile, a group of social workers including Jacky Chen Hung-sau from the Social Workers' General Union was planning a three-day strike next month. They urged people from other sectors to join them.
Additional reporting by Cannix Yau and Ng Kang-chung
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