Catapults and Caltrops: Hong Kong’s uni protesters wheel out medieval tech

Protesters gather with a catapult made from bamboo at the Chinese University of Hong Kong on Nov. 13, 2019. Photo via AFP.
Protesters gather with a catapult made from bamboo at the Chinese University of Hong Kong on Nov. 13, 2019. Photo via AFP.

With wooden catapults to launch petrol bombs, and bows and arrows pilfered from sports departments, Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protesters are combining new tactics with medieval tech as they battle police.

Roads in the financial hub have been blockaded with bamboo lattices this week, while mini Stonehenge-like structures have been built from dug-up paving stones as the city lurches deeper into crisis.

Universities have become the epicenter of battle in recent days, with students — joined by other black-clad members of the frontline protest movement — saying they have been pressed into the defense of their campuses by police threats, even as the president of one of the most embattled universities has called for purported outsiders to leave or face unspecified intervention from authorities.

As a rolling strike hobbles the MTR and fuels already-intense clashes with police, hardcore protesters have bolstered their arsenal of Molotovs and bricks with an unlikely array of weapons.

Those include sports gear — javelins and bows and arrows lifted from university storerooms, as well as tennis racquets to bat away tear-gas canisters.

Chairs and mattresses have been pulled from college dorms for use as barricades or shields against increasingly heavy barrages of police rubber bullets.

This homespun approach has also taken on a medieval edge in one of Asia’s most modern cities.

Giant wooden catapults have been constructed from scratch, while caltrops — three-pronged spikes made of plastic piping and nails — have been laid to impede officers on foot alongside mazes of bricks to trip up police snatch squads.

Around a thousand protesters waited at Hong Kong Polytechnic University as Thursday afternoon wore on, anticipating a police charge in the hours ahead.

The campus faces the Cross Harbour tunnel, a key route between the Kowloon peninsula, which is connected by land to the Chinese mainland, and the finance center of Hong Kong Island.

Protesters closed the link late Wednesday and had rolled a catapult into view of the tunnel in case police tried to breach the barricade.

“If they come later we’re going to load it with bricks, Molotov cocktails and flammable arrows,” said a 23-year-old protester, giving the pseudonym Ah Fai.

The tactic fits a pattern. AFP photographs show a flame-tipped arrow being fired by a protester on Wednesday.

Meanwhile video clips circulating on social media show jubilant demonstrators celebrating as a practice round of material — also ablaze — hurtles through the air from a catapult.

Nearly six months on, the leaderless protest movement remains characterised by ingenuity and collective action.

But it is now also defined by increasing paranoia and violence in the face of a police force protesters accuse of brutality — and an unyielding government.

At Hong Kong Polytechnic University on Thursday students set up a “customs” barrier to search all entrants including media.

“This is to prevent any plainclothes officers from entering,” said Michael, a 23-year-old student, giving one name like most protesters.

“I don’t know the effectiveness of it but it’s better than nothing.”

Hong Kong, meanwhile, remains littered with barricades, broken glass and bricks — collected into small castles in acts of defiance.

“Some are stacked for art,” said a 17-year-old frontline protester who identified himself as Sam.

“Others we stacked higher so that the cops might run into them while they’re running.”

Police accused protesters of turning the Chinese University of Hong Kong, one of the city’s most prestigious campuses and the scene of running battles on Tuesday night, into a “weapons factory.”

“The truth speaks for itself,” Hong Kong police spokesman John Tse told reporters on Thursday, accusing “rioters” of throwing petrol bombs off bridges, widespread arson attacks, and firing arrows at a police patrol.

In return protesters face a police force armed with batons, rubber bullets, tear gas, water cannon and handguns.

Meanwhile, CUHK President Rocky Tuan, who the other night was tear gassed while mediating between protesters and police in a bid to quell a tense standoff, today warned alleged outsiders — whom he accused of staging a “takeover” of the campus — to leave or risk inviting a response from authorities.

According to RTHK, Tuan said protesters’ manufacture of petrol bombs and commandeering of school resources was “unacceptable,” and decried vandalism on campus.

The school later reportedly clarified via Telegram that it was not inviting a police clearance, but merely urging people on campus to leave for safety reasons.

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