HONG KONG – When the Hong Kong leader invoked emergency powers to ban masks during protests, she did her best to explain that the city was not in a state of emergency. Instead, she stated that after months of unrest, the city was in "a very critical state of public danger."
The message and the ban itself were highly calculated. It was designed to show that the government was taking steps to protect public safety while trying not to provoke further violence by protesters.
The pro-Beijing camp of government leaders and legislators, from moderates such as hard-line chief executive Carrie Lam, was also determined to deal with the unrest, and gave the Chinese leadership no reason to intervene.
"We want to solve this on our own," said Regina Ip, a member of Lam's cabinet, who heads a popular political party among the police.
Attempting to restore public order without provoking further protests, however, will be difficult to achieve, and the city leadership is already considering imposing other measures to crack down. Totally different views on the prohibition of masks emphasize how irreconcilable the differences between the government and the protesters have become.
For Hong Kong's top leaders, the ban, punishable by up to one year in prison, was a measured approach. For the time being, it has avoided the more extreme options proposed by some pro-Beijing hardliners, such as much tougher sentences, running courts 24 hours a day or imposing a curfew.
For the protesters, the ban – reaching standard equipment at the demonstrations – is a manifestation of their worst fears, an erosion of civil liberties that set the semi-autonomous territory apart from the rest of China. In his view, simply asserting the emergency powers is a worrying sign that Beijing will increasingly exert influence over the city.
After an eerie silence invaded the city on Saturday, tens of thousands of protesters returned on Sunday to march in the rain, defying the ban wearing masks. As the marches began peacefully, protesters on the banks set up barricades, lit bonfires and vandalized shops whose owners they considered Beijing supporters.
Police fired many tear gas bombs in an effort to disperse the crowd and urged residents to stay home.
"The most disastrous thing is that you invoke an archaic, draconian colonial law made at a time of 1922, when Hong Kong had no mini-containment," said Alan Leong, chairman of the pro-democracy Civic Party. “It is no longer the rule of law; It is now ruled by a woman. "
For nearly two months, Ms. Lam and her top advisors vigorously debated how to contain the rising violence. They consulted widely with civil liberties and human rights lawyers within the government, as well as constitutional experts and security experts.
Discussions continued last week in the corridors and restaurants of the opulent Grand Hyatt hotel in Beijing, where Lam's 240-member delegation stayed before attending the China National Day parade on Tuesday. Lam, at a news conference on Friday announcing the ban, made a point of emphasizing that he did not discuss the matter while visiting any Beijing officials.
To avoid possible protesters at Hong Kong airport, Lam caught a flight on Tuesday afternoon to Shenzhen on the mainland border and then crossed the city. The moment Mrs. Lam was coming home, a police officer shot a protester in the chest at close range.
The bullet barely struck the protester's heart, spine, and major arteries. "On October 1st, we were three inches from the disaster," said Ronny Tong, another member of Lam's cabinet, the Executive Council.
With the shooting, Ms. Lam and her team believed they had no choice but to invoke the colonial era. Emergency Regulations Ordinance. The law, which has not been used since deadly riots in the late 1960s, gives the chief executive an extraordinary power to pass rules without going through the legislature.
Other options besides banning masks are still being considered if chaos intensifies, according to Ms. Lam's aides, several of whom spoke on condition of anonymity given the sensitivity of the problem. But all political options have their own limitations and the potential to further incite protesters.
A curfew is on the list, possibly targeted only at teenagers, whom authorities have blamed for much of the recent violence. The British used a curfew in Hong Kong to restore order during riots of pro-communist activists in 1967.
But imposing one now is not entirely practical. Protesters showed talent for moving around the city quickly, so authorities would need a curfew for all neighborhoods. And the already extensive police force does not necessarily have the resources to enforce it.
A second option, according to Lam's advisers, is to give police more time to arrest suspects before they are charged by prosecutors for a criminal offense or released. They currently have only 48 hours, which Hong Kong police say is not enough time to investigate.
The British in 1967 took much more drastic action by lifting these limits. At that time, the authorities detained dozens of Maoist activists for half a year without charge in a special prison.
Human rights lawyers inside and outside the government have warned that any move toward longer detentions can now be overturned by Hong Kong courts. More legal protections are available to residents under the Basic Law, a mini-constitution issued in 1997 when Hong Kong was returned to the Chinese.
But the most likely political option now being considered, several Lam's advisers said, is to extend the opening hours of the Hong Kong courts far enough so that they can quickly put several violent protesters behind bars.
To this end, the Hong Kong leadership is closely studying the British government's response to lethal disturbances in 2011 in London's Tottenham neighborhood and elsewhere, said Albert H.Y. Chen, a prominent professor of law at the University of Hong Kong who advises Beijing on legal issues in the territory. During the unrest, Britain temporarily operated the courts 24 hours a day to quickly prosecute large numbers of people detained on arson charges, assaulting police and other offenses.
It could be relatively easy to operate Hong Kong courts all the time, as the city still has almost identical court rules to Britain, a legacy of more than 150 years of colonial rule. The main obstacle is the lack of judges in Hong Kong.
Attracting the city's top legal minds to become judges has been difficult because they can earn more in the private sector, while the process of appointing new judges is long and contentious. Lam could ignore the process with his emergency powers and appoint many young pro-Beijing judges, but that would undermine Hong Kong's international reputation for judicial independence.
So far, the government is unwilling to go the extra mile to ask for Beijing's intervention.
An obscure provision under the Basic Law, Article 18, allows the continent to extend its stringent national security laws to Hong Kong if the China Rubber Stamp Legislative Standing Committee "decides that the region is in a state of emergency." Lam seemed to rule out that possibility when he emphasized Friday that Hong Kong was not in such a terrible position.
Still, Lau Siu-kai, a former city official who is one of Beijing's top advisers on Hong Kong policy, said the unrest has reached the point where Article 18 may become an option at some point.
Lau warned, however, that he was not asking. Beijing, he said, did not want to intervene and become responsible for solving Hong Kong's problems.
"This is the last thing Beijing wants to do," Lau said. "At the moment, Beijing is ready for a long and protracted war, because what is happening in Hong Kong is hurting Hong Kong more than the continent."