Students wear Guy Fawkes masks at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University on November 5 2019. Picture: AFP/NOEL CELIS
Students wear Guy Fawkes masks at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University on November 5 2019. Picture: AFP/NOEL CELIS

Hong Kong — Hong Kong’s acting leader said on Tuesday that he deeply regretted the involvement of civil servants in protests that have plunged the Chinese-ruled city into crisis as activists plan masked Guy Fawkes demonstrations across the territory on November 5.

Acting CEO Matthew Cheung’s comments came after a commentary by the ruling Communist Party’s People’s Daily said Hong Kong civil servants who supported the anti-government demonstrations would “perish with the rioters”.

Protesters have kept up their calls for universal suffrage and an independent inquiry into alleged police brutality, among other demands.

The protests, which pose the gravest challenge to Chinese President Xi Jinping since he came to power in 2012, have received broad support, including from some civil servants, teachers and financial sector workers.

“In the past few months, a very small portion of the civil servants have broken the law, participating in illegal protests. We deeply regret that,” Cheung said. “Their first job is to serve society, serve the community. And to support government policies, that is the responsibility of the civil servants.”

In August, thousands of civil servants defied a government warning to remain politically neutral and joined a rally, while the territory’s CEO Carrie Lam said in September that she regretted the arrest of some civil servants during protests.

After gatecrashing fancy-dress Halloween festivities on October 31, protesters have circulated plans on social media to mark Guy Fawkes Day on Tuesday by wearing the white, smiling Guy Fawkes masks made popular by anti-establishment hackers, the film V for Vendetta, and protesters globally.

‘Gunpowder plot’

Guy Fawkes Day, also called Bonfire Night, is celebrated with fireworks and bonfires every November 5 in Britain, when effigies of “guys” are burnt, marking the night in 1605 when Fawkes was arrested for a “gunpowder plot” to blow up parliament.

Lam banned face masks last month, invoking colonial-era emergency powers for the first time in more than 50 years, but protesters have largely ignored the ruling.

The number of people who take part in the mostly weekend rallies has dwindled from the millions who participated in June, but the violence and vandalism have escalated. Authorities have refused permits for many recent protests, making them illegal from the outset and activists liable to be arrested.

There have been many injuries in the protests, but no deaths. A  student at a Hong Kong university, who fell during protests at the weekend, is in critical condition, hospital authorities said. A man knifed several people on Sunday and bit off a part of a politician’s ear before being beaten by protesters. A suspect is in custody.

Cheung said his administration will safeguard freedom of the press amid criticism of what many see as excessive police force, including against the media. Cheung is standing in for Lam, who is visiting mainland China, where Xi said on Monday that the central government has a high degree of confidence in her.

The demonstrations have battered the retail and tourism sectors, with preliminary government data showing the economy slid into recession for the first time in a decade in the third quarter.

An IHS Markit survey published on Tuesday showed business activity in Hong Kong’s private sector fell to its weakest in 21 years in October, weighed down by anti-government protests and softening global demand.

Hong Kong returned to China under a “one country, two systems” formula that is meant to protect its freedoms for 50 years.

Reuters