The clashes escalated this week after police shot and wounded a 21-year-old protester Monday.
The same day, protesters doused a 57-year-old man with liquid and set him alight. Both victims remained in the hospital Tuesday.
More questions about the vote were raised Tuesday. The People’s Daily, the Communist Party’s mouthpiece, published a commentary on its social media accounts that backed Hong Kong’s crackdown on demonstrators and said the vote should proceed only if calm is restored in the semiautonomous Chinese territory.
“Only by supporting the police force in decisively putting down the riots can [Hong Kong] return to peace and hold fair elections, to help Hong Kong start again,” it said. Facing escalating threats, it said, Hong Kong’s government is “entitled to regulate the street violence instigated by opposition parties and extremist forces.”
At the Chinese University, a stretch of campus became a no-man’s land.
Black-clad demonstrators, behind umbrellas and table tops, hurled bricks and gasoline bombs. Police fired nonstop volleys of tear gas and rubber bullets from across a narrow bridge, kicking up stinging pink and orange clouds.
At one point, police offered to halt the tear gas if students pulled back.
“If the police don’t retreat, we will not leave,” a masked protester responded. “We have already suffered through hundreds of tear gas and bullets. If we leave, they will arrest us all.”
A university fitness room was converted into a makeshift first aid center to manage injuries.
Clashes also flared in other spots around Hong Kong, including the City University and central business districts during midday. Near the City University, protesters rampaged through a shopping mall and set a Christmas tree ablaze, the Reuters news agency reported.
“Our society has been pushed to the brink of a total breakdown,” Senior Police Superintendent Kong Wing-cheung told reporters.
The district elections, if they proceed, will allow a polarized city to cast ballots in Hong Kong’s only relatively free electoral exercise.
District councilors’ responsibilities are largely local, but their seats make up a sizable portion of the committee that selects Hong Kong’s chief executive, with the other half handpicked by the Chinese government. The pro-democracy camp hopes to capitalize on public anger toward the city’s Beijing-backed administration, which has deployed increasing force against protesters demanding full democracy and police accountability.
Hong Kong’s leader, Carrie Lam, whose approval rating has plummeted to a record low of around 20 percent, has received the support of Chinese leader Xi Jinping. But with that backing comes an expectation that Lam will use necessary means to restore order to Hong Kong, now in its six month of demonstrations.
Since Lam invoked emergency powers to ban face masks in public assemblies — which protesters use to protect themselves from surveillance and tear gas — some lawmakers worry the government could use the same powers to postpone the election, citing political turmoil, said Dennis Kwok Wing-hang, a lawmaker representing Hong Kong’s legal sector.
Fears of cancellation are not unfounded. In recent weeks, authorities have arrested several pro-democracy lawmakers and candidates running for district council seats. Democracy activist Joshua Wong was barred from running. Violence against councilors has increased: Pro-establishment figure Junius Ho was stabbed while campaigning, and a pro-democracy district councilor had his ear bitten off during a tussle involving a knife-wielding assailant. Jimmy Sham, an organizer of pro-democracy marches and a candidate in the election, was attacked by a gang with hammers.
Asked Tuesday whether she would consider postponing the vote, Lam told reporters that the government “hopes that the elections can continue as planned.”
In recent days Hong Kong’s Electoral Affairs Commission called on the public to “stop all threats and violence to support the holding of elections in a peaceful and orderly manner.”
Although pro-Beijing politicians are likely to face electoral losses, postponing this month’s vote would only make this worse, said Ma Ngok, a professor of Hong Kong politics at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
“Voters would see this as manipulation and may come out in bigger numbers,” he said, adding that there is no legal provision to cancel elections, only to postpone them for a short period.
Although moderates in the pro-Beijing camp see the election as a means to vent public anger peacefully and want it to go ahead, Ma sees a power struggle in which hard-liners want emergency powers used to cancel the election entirely and thus maintain their grip on power. But declaring a state of emergency to do so would “send a major shock through the international community” that would irreparably damage Hong Kong’s reputation, Ma said.
A recent survey by the Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute found that 70 percent of respondents opposed delaying the election.
“It’s more important than ever to have this election,” said a 20-year-old engineering student manning a protest barricade at the University of Hong Kong. He asked to remain anonymous for fear of retribution. If the elections don’t go ahead, he said, “the government will be cutting off yet another avenue of political reform and will push people to take more radical action.”
Anna Fifield contributed reporting from Beijing.