HONG KONG—Large fires burned at a university here early Monday as police threatened lethal force and advanced on a group of increasingly militant pro-democracy activists armed with makeshift weapons who have occupied the campus for days.
Protesters inside the campus of Hong Kong Polytechnic University hurled Molotov cocktails as police tried to storm the grounds early Monday, and the entryway and areas around the university’s perimeter were quickly engulfed in flames. One protester shown on live video was seen firing an arrow at the officers.
In some of the fiercest clashes since protests began in the Chinese-ruled city five months ago, police on Sunday used water-cannon blasts, tear gas and beanbag rounds against students who started a massive fire on a bridge, shot a police officer in the leg with an arrow and set fire to an armored car.
As the fighting continued, police said they would fire their guns if attacked by people police Superintendent Louis Lau called “coldblooded rioters.”
“We will have no other choice but to use the minimal force necessary to address the situation, including real bullets,” he said.
In a video recording addressing protesters that was released Monday morning, university President Teng Jin-guang said the university had negotiated a temporary cease-fire to allow protesters to leave peacefully. Hundreds remained on campus as of 12 p.m. Monday, according to one student inside. Some managed to get away.
The confrontation capped a week of violence that has marked a significant shift in the struggle, with the core of college- and high school-aged activists driving the unrest now stockpiling makeshift weapons and adopting more aggressive tactics in an effort to maintain the movement’s momentum.
As of 7:30 a.m. Monday, 38 injured people—ranging in age from 16 to 84—were being treated at hospitals following the clashes at Polytechnic, according to the city’s Hospital Authority. Five people were in serious condition, 28 were listed as stable and the rest were discharged. Many more injured protesters remain at the university, according to people at the scene.
“We don’t want to fight a war, but we have no choice,” said an activist manning the barricades at the university over the weekend, a 16-year-old high-school student wearing a black balaclava and protective goggles who gave his name as Quentin. “We want freedom, human rights.”
Police have responded with escalating force, shooting three protesters since the protests began. They have said they were acting in self defense in those instances.
In a highly symbolic act on Saturday, unarmed Chinese soldiers stationed in Hong Kong departed their barracks to clear road debris left by protesters, sparking fears of intervention.
Meanwhile, Hong Kong’s pro-China leader Carrie Lam has remained out of sight in recent days as turmoil deepened. Mrs. Lam emerged at a hospital on Monday, visiting the officer who was shot by an arrow a day earlier.
For months, the prospect that China could deploy its army to quash the unrest has hung over the city. China’s leader, Xi Jinping, last week personally exhorted Hong Kong authorities to restore order, fueling speculation of a crackdown.
The increasing violence, including viral images of a worker set on fire while arguing with protesters on Nov. 11, also stands to deepen rifts within Hong Kong society about protest tactics.
Several days spent at Hong Kong Polytechnic University and Chinese University of Hong Kong offered stark evidence of the transformation reshaping the dynamics of the protest movement.
Instead of chanting slogans, protesters massed weapons. Instead of creating wall art, they built fortifications.
Protesters described their use Molotov cocktails and other weapons as self-defense against aggressive police tactics. They complained their movement has run out of peaceful options such as marches, permits for which the government the government now routinely denies.
Many said they were pressing forward even though believe they aren’t likely to achieve their current demands of universal suffrage and an independent inquiry into police violence.
Police say they have used a minimum of force during months of unrest. Meanwhile, videos of arrests that end in beatings are rife on social media.
Police said a media-liaison officer was hit in the calf by an arrow on Sunday afternoon, adding that the attack posed “a grave threat to the safety of everyone at the scene.” The officer was taken to a hospital and was conscious, police said.
Shortly after 11 p.m. on Sunday, police began pushing toward barricades built by protesters near the entrance to a tunnel that links Hong Kong island to Kowloon, where the Polytechnic University is located. The tunnel has been closed for days, after student protesters blockaded it and set its tollbooths on fire. Debris still litters the roadway.
“We’re surrounded now,” said a Hong Kong Polytechnic student who gave his name as Tam. He said he had been inside the fortified campus since last Monday.
Hundreds of protesters sheltered behind a tangle of desks, chairs and tables, squaring off with police in the darkness. Several held Molotov cocktails, while another group carried a giant slingshot.
Last week, activists stockpiled firebombs at the university and constructed roadblocks from debris and masonry to prevent police vehicles from approaching. They posted lookouts and required visitors to produce identification to a “border guard” dressed in black and wearing body armor.
Hundreds of protesters converged at Polytechnic in recent days, the last holdout of a group of universities occupied last week.
The first violence of the week erupted overnight Tuesday at the Chinese University in a rural northern territory of Hong Kong, one of several fortified that week.
Students there engaged police for hours in a fiery battle at a narrow bridge, and real-time images of the fight attracted hundreds of young demonstrators to the scene.
One was a 17-year-old high school junior with round eyeglasses who arrived clad in his school uniform. He had been at a chemistry-tutoring session when he saw images of the fights and raced there with a younger friend. Both had recently completed first-aid classes to act as medics.
“We came to fight for our freedom,” he said.
The protests, initially triggered by a now-withdrawn extradition bill, have turned into an antigovernment movement focused on alleged police brutality and China’s increasing encroachment.
The stakes are high for Hong Kong, a former British colony that was returned to Chinese sovereignty in 1997. As part of the handover agreement, Hong Kong was supposed to remain a semiautonomous city under the “one country, two systems” regime until 2047.
A crackdown by Beijing could spell the end of Hong Kong’s autonomy and dilute its role as a global financial hub.
The saga represents a black eye for China, too, which is embroiled in a bitter trade war with the U.S. and facing increasing scrutiny around the world for its detention program targeting ethnic Uighurs and other Muslims in Xinjiang.
The Civil Human Rights Front, an umbrella group that organized some of the biggest marches and rallies over the summer, called for the Hong Kong government and police to de-escalate the situation.
“With the tense atmosphere and escalation of the use of force by police, we worry that the protesters, most of whom are our young and future generation, will face arrest with bloodshed,” the group said on Sunday.
—Steven Russolillo and Joyu Wang contributed to this article.
Copyright ©2019 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved. 87990cbe856818d5eddac44c7b1cdeb8