Hong Kong bans wearing masks at protests

Hong Kong’s leader invoked rarely-used emergency powers to ban people from wearing face masks during public assemblies, a move that enraged thousands of protesters who marched through streets across the territory on Friday night.

The city’s major transport network MTR suspended all of its operations after demonstrators vandalized a number of areas within Hong Kong — from train stations to shopping malls and banks.

The mask ban comes into effect on October 5, Chief Executive Carrie Lam announced at a press conference Friday, following a special meeting of her cabinet, the Executive Council.

The embattled leader said the order to enact the “Prohibition On Face Covering Regulation” was a “necessary decision” but insisted it does not mean Hong Kong was in a state of emergency.

“We are now in a rather extensive and serious public danger. It is essential for us to stop violence and restore calm to society as soon as possible,” she said. “We believe the new law will create a deterrent effect against masked protesters and rioters.”

Lam said she won’t set a date to nullify the anti-mask law.

The vast majority of people who have attended the city’s recent pro-democracy demonstrations do so wearing masks to hide their identity, fearful that they could be arrested or targeted by police. Gas masks and respirators to protect against tear gas, which is often used by authorities to disperse unauthorized gatherings, have also become commonplace.

In order to enact such a ban the Chief Executive Office will invoke the city’s colonial-era Emergency Regulations Ordinance, which grants the government sweeping emergency powers.

The legislation has not been used in more than half a century and gives Lam the power to bypass the city’s legislature to “make any regulations whatsoever which he (or she) may consider desirable in the public interest.” Lam said the new law was subsidiary legislation and so will be debated by the Legislative Council — where pro-government parties hold a majority — when they meet later this month.

Introduced in 1922, the law was last used in 1967 during the leftist riots, that were followed by a campaign of terrorist bombings across Hong Kong and pitched battles between protesters and police. Fifty-one died throughout the turmoil, including 10 police officers.

The new law bans people from wearing facial coverings that obscure their identity, including paint, at unauthorized or authorized protests, or public processions. Those found guilty face up to a year in prison and a HKD $25,000 ($3,100) fine.

Lam said the regulation contains exemptions for people who do have legitimate reasons to wear face coverings — such as for religious, medical, or professional purposes.

Defiant protesters

What originally started out as a peaceful march descended into chaos on Friday evening — with MRT stations burned, the Bank of China set on fire and police attacked in the streets.

Senior Superintendent Yolanda Yu confirmed a man had been shot and was undergoing surgery.

“At this point, the man is in surgery. We need to further investigate. We cannot investigate now because we cannot contact the man who was shot,” she told reporters.

An earlier statement from Hong Kong police said an angry mob of protesters had thrown petrol bombs at a police officer, before trying to take his pistol which had dropped on the ground.

Police said the incidents “poses a serious threat to public peace and order,” and that officers will deploy “appropriate force to disperse the rioters.”

Tear gas was deployed across Hong Kong to disperse the crowds, but fires continue to rage on throughout the territory.

In response to the escalation in violence, MTR spokesperson Brian Chow confirmed that all rail and subway transport services had been shut down.

Chow said there was no plan to re-open the stations at this stage, and that the MTR was “still analyzing” the number of stations that were set ablaze.

The closure affects 161 stations across Hong Kong.

All masked protesters risk being arrested from midnight on Friday, once the emergency law comes into effect. If arrested, they could face a year in prison.

Mounting pressure

Lam is facing mounting pressure to end the ongoing protests, which are set to enter their 18th weekend. Protests in the semi-autonomous city have grown increasingly violent since they began in early June.

Lam said that “rioters are attacking different parts of Hong Kong, wreaking terror” and that everyday life had been affected.

Hong Kong’s Secretary of Justice John Lee said at the press conference Friday that protesters acted more aggressively when they wore masks and it allowed those committing criminal acts to escape legal action.

“We can see that almost all violent protesters are masked to avoid police arrests and legal consequences, so they could assault people with different opinion, vandalize shops and MTR stations,” Lee said.

But critics say the law would set a dangerous precedent and pave the way for harsher regulations.

Jason Ng, convenor of the Progressive Lawyers Group, said the “most troubling aspect of the mask ban is the slippery slope argument.”

“This time it is a ban on masks, next time it can be a curfew or martial law,” he said.

“The Emergency Regulations Ordinance grants extensive powers for the Chief Executive to pass measures on the vague grounds of ‘public emergency’ and ‘serious public disorder.’ These are not defined terms and can be interrupted broadly. Even more dangerously, there is no telling when these circumstances will cease to exist.”

Ng added that the ban “will have a chilling effect on the more moderate participants from participating.”

The Civil Human Rights Front, whose marches have attracted hundreds of thousands of people, said the anti-mask law would “further suppress citizens and aggravate the contradiction between society and the political power, further pushing Hong Kong into the abyss.”

“Many citizens, including but not limited to grassroots workers, whistleblowers from different sectors and people of different sexual orientations, prefer to wear masks when they speak at public assemblies, in order to avoid discrimination against their identity and political consequence they would face,” the group said in a statement.

However Chinese state media CCTV published a statement from the Hong Kong Macao Affairs office which said “under the current circumstance, it’s legitimate and reasonable for the SAR government to adopt the anti-mask law, and it is crucial.”

Spokesman Yang Guang added that “it won’t undermine all the rights that Hong Kong people have enjoyed, including the freedom of assembly and demonstration.”

Speaking to CNN last week, a senior adviser to Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam — who spoke on background to be candid about government thinking — said they were concerned that any declaration of an emergency by the Hong Kong government could enable Beijing to intervene. The laws which cover the central government doing so are all structured around an emergency situation.

“Declaring an emergency would bring on so much opposition from everywhere, bring you a step closer to Beijing intervention,” the adviser told CNN. “If we ourselves declare there is a state of emergency we’re halfway there.”

Lam however, insisted Friday that Hong Kong was not under a state of emergency.

The announcement comes after an officer fired a live round into a protester for the first time Tuesday, when thousands took to the streets as Beijing celebrated the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China.

The day was marked by violent pitched battles that saw black-clad protesters hurled petrol bombs, set fire to subway station entrances and trash cans, and vandalized government and public buildings. Police responded using tear gas, rubber bullets, water cannons and arresting 269 people.

The teenage protester who was shot is under arrest for assaulting a police officer and could face further arrests for rioting, a source told CNN. He is in stable condition the Queen Elizabeth Hospital’s media department said Wednesday.

The political crisis began after hundreds of thousands took to the streets to oppose a controversial bill that would have legalized extradition from Hong Kong to mainland China. The city’s leader, Carrie Lam, has promised to withdraw the bill once the city’s legislature resumes. But the movement has snowballed into a grassroots, decentralized crusade for universal suffrage and independent inquiries into alleged police misconduct.

In total since the anti-government protests began in June, 1,100 people have been injured, including 300 police officers, Lam said.

This story has been updated.