HONG KONG -- Thousands of Hong Kong university students from mainland China and Taiwan have been fleeing the city since early this week as campuses become battlefields pitting protesters against police.
Some students took free shuttle buses arranged by student unions, alumni groups and volunteers to the neighboring cities of Shenzhen and Guangzhou, while others returned directly to their hometowns.
Four mainland Chinese students who live on campus told the Nikkei Asian Review that most of the people they know had left their dormitories by Wednesday afternoon. A spokesperson at Taiwan's Mainland Affairs Council, which also handles Hong Kong matters, confirmed that it is assisting 284 Taiwanese students to return home on Wednesday and Thursday. This accounts for about a third of all Taiwanese students in Hong Kong.
The evacuations follow a drastic escalation of clashes between police and protesters this week after the death of a student on Friday, allegedly due to a fall between floors of a parking lot while fleeing tear gas.
Police fired tear gas in or near at least four university compounds this week, leaving dozens of students injured. Radical protesters also vandalized canteens and defaced the residence of a university official.
The Chinese University of Hong Kong, which was hit hardest during Tuesday's skirmishes, announced late Wednesday afternoon that it will end the semester early, canceling all remaining classes and exams.
Shirley Hu, a second-year psychology student from Hunan Province, was rushed into a car bound for Shenzhen early Wednesday morning after a night of intense confrontations. She is now stuck in a hostel without her belongings and does not know what to do.
"I like my major and Chinese University. It always felt like a dream to be able to study here," Hu said. "But now I'm living in a nightmare and am afraid that I might have to drop out." She hopes to collect her belongings in a few days if the situation allows then fly home.
Hong Kong police also docked a boat at a pier near the university to pick up mainland students and transport them from the city, as all the major roads leading to the campus were blocked.
About 26,000 mainland Chinese students are studying at 11 Hong Kong universities, according to the Hong Kong Mainland Student Association. They are a noticeable presence in the postgraduate and Ph.D. programs, while many mainland undergraduates live on campus.
Other universities announced on Wednesday that classes will be suspended for the rest of the week -- just two weeks before the official end of the fall semester. Hong Kong Baptist University and Hong Kong University of Science and Technology said they will continue to offer instruction for the rest of the term via online classes.
Tensions remain high at the universities. During a police news conference, a spokesperson said that rather than being a "breeding ground for future leaders," universities have become a "battlefield for criminals and rioters." He added that police suspect Chinese University was used as a "weapons factory," as several hundred petrol bombs were thrown during one day.
The spokesperson said police fired of 1,567 rounds of tear gas, 1312 rubber bullets, 380 bean bag bullets and 126 sponge grenades during Tuesday's operations.
Some of the evacuated students may try to sit in on classes at mainland universities. Peter Sun, a second-year Chinese University student from Guizhou Province, has been staying at a Shenzhen hostel with other students since Tuesday hoping for such a chance.
"My parents are asking to see if I could transfer to another school," Sun said, noting that several students from the mainland have made the move over the past few months.
While Sun said he has not had any trouble with local students due to his mainland origins, he is furious with radical protesters who vandalized the school. "I think the university's tolerance [of violent acts] at the beginning of the protests helped fuel [more] violence," he said.
Other universities are also seeing their mainland students leave.
Sun Shuwei, an exchange student at Hong Kong University, said most mainland students he knows have gone to Shenzhen. During his two months here, Sun, who studied economics at a Canadian university before coming to Hong Kong, said many mainlanders have been harassed on campus.
"Some locals are loath to hear the different views voiced by mainland students, especially views concerning China," he said. This often led to verbal abuse, but physical attacks have not occurred, he said.
"I will definitely complain about this," Sun said, as he believes the university has done little to protect mainland students. Sun plans to meet with Deputy Vice Chancellor Richard Wong on Thursday to discuss the issue before leaving for Shenzhen.
Meanwhile, businesses and organizations in Shenzhen are offering help to mainland students fleeing the beleaguered city.
Coworking space operator Ucommune said in a statement that it will give affected students free access to all its facilities in Shenzhen as a temporary classroom. The Communist Youth League -- an arm of the ruling Communist Party -- will also provide free accommodations for up to seven days at its Shenzhen facilities, according to a notice on its official WeChat page.