Anti-government office workers wearing masks attend a lunch time protest on October 4 2019. Picture: REUTERS/TYRONE SIU
Anti-government office workers wearing masks attend a lunch time protest on October 4 2019. Picture: REUTERS/TYRONE SIU

Hong Kong — Hong Kong invoked emergency powers for the first time in more than half a century to ban face masks for protesters in a bid to stem months of violent unrest, prompting demonstrators to occupy downtown streets.

CEO Carrie Lam said on Friday the move was necessary to stem increased violence in recent weeks, including attacks by protesters using petrol bombs, corrosive liquids and other weapons. The prohibition on face masks will deter violence and help police enforce the law, she said, adding that the measure didn’t mean Hong Kong was under a state of emergency.

“The violence is destroying Hong Kong,” Lam told reporters, flanked by 16 members of her cabinet. “We must save the present Hong Kong and the future Hong Kong.”

Lam called the situation “fluid” and said the government may consider additional measures if the situation worsened. She called on the international community to respond “in a comprehensive and impartial manner.”

“I don’t see how you could relate this to a step closer to authoritarianism,” Lam said in response to a question. “This is a responsible act to deal with an extremely difficult situation, which I hope the world has sympathy.”

UN human rights spokesperson Marta Hurtado told a Geneva briefing on Friday that any use of force against protesters in Hong Kong should be exceptional and only in compliance with international standards, including the principles of necessity and proportionality.

As Lam spoke, protesters began gathering in Central Hong Kong and occupying major boulevards. Shops closed early in anticipation that demonstrations would grow violent, similar to clashes between police and protesters in recent weeks.

The face mask has become a symbol of resistance among protesters who fear retribution if they are identified: China has already applied pressure to businesses such as Cathay Pacific Airways Ltd. to fire employees who have participated in demonstrations. The move to invoke colonial-era emergency powers — last used more than 50 years ago — comes shortly after a protester was shot in violent demonstrations that once again shook the city on October 1, as President Xi Jinping celebrated 70 years of Communist party rule in Beijing.

Protesters already hit the streets on Friday in anticipation of the announcement, and vowed to continue with demonstrations. Hong Kong stocks fell ahead of the briefing, before paring slightly as officials spoke. The Hang Seng index slipped 1.1% to close below the key 26,000 point level.

“This is like opening a Pandora’s box — who knows what will come next after this ban?” said one man protesting in central Hong Kong on Friday afternoon, who only gave his surname Lau. “But the government should know that if it insists, and doesn’t listen to the people, we won’t give up and will keep the government accountable. We will continue our fight.”

First passed by the British government in 1922 to quell a seamen’s strike in Hong Kong’s harbour, the emergency law was last used by the colonial administration to help put down riots that rocked the trading hub in 1967. Denounced by protest leaders as a form of martial law, it could give the government greater leeway to arrest citizens, censor publications, shut off communications networks and search premises without warrants, among other measures.

“Put simply, if there’s no escalation of violence, we don’t need to come out with any new measures,” Lam said. “But if violence escalates, we need to maintain law and order in Hong Kong, we need to make sure that people can conduct their lives as usual.”

Hong Kong’s education department sent a letter to school directors and principals saying students, teaching staff and service providers should “lead by example” and avoid wearing face masks inside and outside of school premises, unless it’s for health or religious purposes.

Demonstrations erupted at 11 sites and shopping centres across the city as news broke of the face mask ban on Thursday, prompting police to fire teargas in one location. More protests are planned for the weekend.

“I’m terrified of the possible backlash,” said Claudia Mo, a pro-democracy legislator in Hong Kong. “The young are saying they’re prepared to die for this cause. They’ll still be out there wearing their masks. And the police will charge at them.”

Hong Kong security secretary John Lee said similar legislation was on the books in the US, France, Germany, Spain and Canada, and that journalists would be exempted when they were on duty. In China, Hu Xijin, editor-in-chief of the Communist Party-backed Global Times newspaper, said in a tweet that Western countries shouldn’t apply “nasty double standards” when reacting to the ban.

The move risks fuelling international condemnation of Lam’s government. Senator Elizabeth Warren, a front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination, called for the US to stand up to China in Hong Kong. She also urged the US to stop exports of police gear to the city and provide temporary protected status to its residents.

Human rights group Amnesty International called the emergency powers an “extreme attempt to quash protests”.

“It is thanks to the climate of fear Hong Kong authorities have created that protesters feel the need to wear masks in the first place,” Joshua Rosenzweig, head of its East Asia regional office, said in a statement. “The Hong Kong authorities should not use emergency rules as a smokescreen for further tightening restrictions on protesters.”

Bloomberg, Reuters