HONG KONG – Hong Kong's embattled leader summoned emergency powers on Friday to ban face masks, implementing a rarely used law that sparked another wave of violent protests and threatened to erode confidence in a city that relies heavily on business and tourism. international.
Scattered groups of protesters were seen defying the ban on the mask – punishable by fines and imprisonment – after it came into effect at 12:01 pm Saturday, suggesting a weekend standoff between protesters and officials who have been trying to crack down on protests for months.
The decision of city executive director Carrie Lam reflected the growing intensity of the movement and the increasing pressure the government faces to act.
Earlier this week, tens of thousands of protesters spread throughout the city in mass demonstrations designed to overshadow a politically sensitive anniversary in China. The protests quickly turned into violent clashes, including the murder of an 18-year-old student by a police officer.
But Ms. Lam's decision to invoke emergency powers could backfire, sparking further concern over the government's invasion of Hong Kong's civil liberties and Beijing's influence over the semi-autonomous region.
In the hours before midnight, sporadic conflicts broke out in the city between masked protesters and the police. Some protesters smashed windows and set fire to subway stations and storefronts, prompting authorities to shut down the entire subway system two hours earlier than usual. Clashes continued in the outlying areas after midnight, although so far many central districts had cleared. The entire subway system, as well as local trains, remained closed on Saturday morning.
A 14-year-old boy received a gunshot wound to his leg, a local hospital official confirmed, without providing information about the shooting. A police statement said a plainclothes officer attacked in Yuen Long had "fired a shot in self-defense". It was not clear if they were related.
While the ban may lead some peaceful protesters to stay home, it may also encourage others to seek more confrontation. Any increase in violence could increase pressure on the local economy as the protests deter foreign tourists, mainland buyers and business travelers.
Lam repeatedly emphasized at a news conference that she was not declaring an emergency but was acting under a provision of colonial-era territorial law that allows regulations to be issued in response to "a state of grave danger."
"We are particularly concerned that many students are participating in" violent protests, "compromising their safety and even their future," she said. "As a responsible government, we have a duty to use every means available to stop the escalation of violence and restore calm in society."
The ban on masks will be punishable by up to one year in prison and a fine. It will apply to public meetings of more than a few dozen people. But enforcing the ban can be difficult given its near ubiquity in the movement. Face masks are a common feature among the crowd of protesters, both for safety and security.
Many protesters wear gas masks and respirators, as well as first responders and journalists, to protect themselves from tear gas that police use to disperse crowds engaging in violence. Some use them to protect their identity for fear of being captured in photos and surveillance equipment, then retaliated.
Few people attend mass meetings without one, even during peaceful marches and demonstrations. When Mrs. Lam held her first city hall with residents last week, many members of the audience who confronted her with difficult questions wore masks.
But the face masks and anonymity they provide harbored more violent protesters, who beat police and vandalized property. Undercover cops also wore masks to disguise protesters and make arrests.
When news of the ban spread on Friday lunch, hundreds of people, many wearing masks, blocked a main road in central Hong Kong. They chanted anti-government slogans, saying it was "irrational legislation" and "covering faces is not a crime". Some have asked Mrs. Lam to change course and dissolve the police.
"This ban is ridiculous," said Wilson Lee, a 29-year-old paralegal. "It just shows the government's incompetence and refusal to listen to any of our concerns. They are just making things worse."
After the ban was announced, the city began to prepare for further unrest. Shopping malls and closed stores. Companies, including global bank HSBC, let workers out early.
Tens of thousands of people marched through the city's main streets in a spontaneous protest after work on Friday, while the anger prolonged by the shooting on Tuesday mingled with new fury with the ban.
Protesters erected barricades using road signs, dumpsters, rocks and traffic cones. Fast food restaurants seen as Beijing owners have been vandalized. The subway system was closed and police fired tear gas.
Castor Lai, 29, dressed in a black shirt, black pants and surgical mask, said he believed the ban on face masks worsened tensions, not improved. "I didn't used to wear masks in protests because I mainly participated in protests allowed by the police," he said. "But after the police killed one of our citizens with real weapons, we can no longer be so passive and peaceful."
Lam's use of emergency powers, a colonial-era law that has not been used for decades, suggests that the government and police might have been left without means of restoring order without limiting some civil liberties.
The law, the so-called Emergency Regulations Ordinance, gives the chief executive ample legal authority to pass rules without having to go through the legislature. It was last used during deadly riots in 1967, when pro-communist protesters protested against the British government overseeing the city. At that time, authorities were using the law to suspend the publication of some left-wing newspapers and keep dozens of radicals for months without charge in a special prison in the southwest of downtown.
The Lam government is debating whether to take such an extraordinary step weeks ago, concerned about the message it sends to the city and the world. The ban on face masks could undermine the government's efforts to convince Hong Kong audiences, tourists and the international business community that the city is generally safe, a reputation that has helped make Hong Kong one of the world's leading financial capitals.
Ronny Tong, a member of the Executive Board, the chief executive's chief advisory body, said he was afraid to invoke emergency regulations because he feared the stigma this would bring to Hong Kong. But he said the ban on masks was preferable to a general curfew, an idea recently suggested by some pro-Beijing help lines.
Lawmakers also debated the effectiveness of such rules, pointing to the experiences of other countries. France has this ban, but it has not prevented many protesters of yellow vests from wearing them anyway.
"The government is weighing the pros and cons, and those who are against argue that it would not help much," said Jasper Tsang, founder of the largest pro-Beijing political party and chairman of the legislature until 2016.
While the government is deeply divided on the issue, Tsang said the escalating violence on Tuesday, including a protester's first police shootout, left officials reconsidering all options.
"It seems we need more effective and stricter measures," he said.
Beijing said on Friday it supports Lam's decision to ban masks, state television said CCTV.
Yang Guang, spokesman for the State Affairs Office of China's Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Bureau, said the situation in Hong Kong has reached a critical juncture and cannot continue unabated.
Critics say the ban merely hides a crackdown on the right to protest. Students wear masks regularly as they join hands before school and during lunch. These so-called human chains are often covered by local media, and masks provide anonymity to young people concerned about repercussions.
"Political reasons should not be presented as something done on behalf of students," said Ip Kin-yuen, a pro-democracy lawmaker representing the education sector at a news conference on Friday.
The ban is already stirring protesters' concerns about wider erosions of privacy and personal freedoms.
Protests began this summer over opposition to a law that would allow extradition to the continent, where the courts are controlled by the Communist Party. Since then, the movement has become a broader appeal to protect the autonomy of Hong Kong, a special administrative region of China governed by a policy known as "one country, two systems."
Although the emergency law is not as powerful as in 1967, Ms. Lam has ample scope to issue new regulations – without having to go through the usual legislative process. A curfew can be set. You can enter buildings and search phones more easily without warrants. Penalties up to life imprisonment can be imposed for crimes that usually carry much lighter penalties.
Teresa Cheng, the secretary of justice, said the government will send the new face mask regulation for review by the legislature, which has the power to block it. But the pro-Beijing majority is unlikely to do so.
"For the international community, any kind of emergency power will send warning signals," said Simon Young, a professor at the University of Hong Kong Law School. "Although it may start with an incremental measure, nothing prevents another measure …