HONG KONG — Gas masks, helmets, umbrellas, goggles: For anyone in Hong Kong, this is a checklist of essential protective equipment needed to partake in or document the protests that have plunged the semiautonomous Chinese territory into political crisis. But to authorities seeking to choke off the movement, these items are “tools for attacking people.”
So said Hong Kong police when they visited an industrial-equipment shop in the city’s Kowloon district two weeks ago, the manager said. The man, who identified himself only as Peter to protect his business, said about 20 officers came to warn him that at “this sensitive moment, you know how to do it. You have to be careful.” The message, he said, was clear: Stop selling gear to protesters.
Peter is doing nothing illegal — gas masks and helmets aren’t prohibited or controlled goods — and in an emailed response to The Washington Post, police didn’t address questions about efforts to squeeze supplies of protective gear.
But as protests intensify, along with Chinese government warnings of dire consequences, authorities are clamping down on the sale and importation of items they regard as resistance tools. In turn, vendors and the anti-government protesters are devising ways to circumvent equipment shortages and keep the front lines supplied.
“Nowadays, we work like smugglers,” Peter said. “We have to hide from the government.”
Gas masks have become especially coveted in the Asian financial hub, where demonstrators have faced off with police in violent clashes. Police have fired more than 1,800 rounds of tear gas since early June, when marches began over an extradition bill, since shelved but not fully withdrawn, that would allow suspects to be tried in China.
“There is no stock on the market” of gas masks, said a 43-year-old shop owner who asked to be identified as Ho. When he pressed manufacturer 3M’s official distributor in Hong Kong to restock, he said, “they gave me only 30” masks instead of the 100 sought. Visits by The Washington Post to several other shops yielded similar tales.
As protests become part of daily life, even in residential areas, there is demand for this gear even from beyond the front lines. “There are many people buying these products,” Ho said. “People who are in suits, even.”
The scarcest items are full-face gas masks, followed by respirators and goggles. Helmets are relatively easy to obtain, but carrying them draws suspicion. Police regularly stop and search protesters, and recently arrested a student for buying 10 laser pointers, accusing him of carrying offensive weapons. He was later released without charge.
To combat the shortages, Lee Ching Hei, 33, has a solution: pop-up shops.
Lee recently opened a business, National Calamity Hardware, employing a team of 10 to scour for and snap up gear in Hong Kong. At big protests, he rents a stall nearby and sells packets containing an eye mask, a respirator, gloves and a helmet. The packet costs him about $64, but he sells on a pay-what-you-can basis. The student price is $1.27.
“The shortage is already happening in Hong Kong,” he said. “I’m using all the ways I can just to make myself a supplier.”
He packages his supplies in black plastic bags. That way, protesters won’t get stopped on the streets, and if the police want to know what’s inside, they need to buy it. He said he charges government staff about 1,000 times the student rate.
“This is my business, not the government’s,” he said.
Police have taken increasingly aggressive action during clashes with protesters, whom Chinese officials have branded “terrorists.” In June, after they detained and searched 358 protesters, police said they found items such as box cutters, razor blades and scissors, suggesting a planned confrontation. Officers also confiscated cable ties, shirts, masks and goggles.
“They were organized and prepared radical individuals,” said Lee Kwai-wah, the senior superintendent of the Organized Crime and Triad Bureau, according to the South China Morning Post. “The masks and shirts were used to hide their identities.”
Police also have characterized laser pointers — which protesters have used to distract officers and deter surveillance cameras — as a threat, by demonstrating at a news conference how light beams could burn a hole in a sheet of paper.
The police aren’t the only source of pressure. Peter, of the Kowloon hardware store, said Chinese officials had been pressuring mainland companies not to ship certain goods to Hong Kong.
“All the shops and suppliers in the mainland already know there is a restriction on supplying some products to Hong Kong,” he said, adding that his supplier had been interrogated by authorities in recent days.
In the hopes of getting half of his shipments, Peter says he orders goods to 10 different addresses and sources them from Japan and Taiwan. He says many of the orders are seized by Chinese customs officials at the border. China customs officials didn’t respond to a request for comment.
As shops in Hong Kong run low, protesters are turning online, with mixed success.
One protester, a postgraduate student who asked to be identified as Carl, 24, ordered two stab-resistant vests from China through Taobao, an e-commerce platform, in July, after a pro-Beijing mob attacked protesters in a subway station. The first one arrived. But an order he placed later that month was canceled after a delivery service rejected it.
Another protester, a 29-year-old who would go only by the pseudonym “M,” helps supply his comrades via the messaging app Telegram. He recently tried to order five masks through Taobao. M said the shop rejected the order because the delivery service indicated it was “unable to ship masks, gloves, goggles or umbrellas” to Hong Kong.
“You need to know some people to give it to you,” he said. “You cannot just get it.”
The Post contacted five vendors in China on Taobao, and all said warehouses in China that processed shipments to Hong Kong were refusing to accept protest-
related supplies destined for the territory.
Alibaba, the parent company of Taobao, didn’t respond to questions from The Post about the supply limits. SF Express, a Chinese delivery-services company, declined to comment, as did Deppon, one of China’s largest logistics companies.
Chinese restrictions on protective equipment could technically violate World Trade Organization rules, said Bryan Mercurio, a professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong’s law school and an expert in international trade law. But under the national security provision in WTO rules, he said, it’s “likely that China would call this an essential security measure taken in time of emergency and prevail in any dispute.”
The tactics indicate that Beijing sees the Hong Kong crisis as “an increasingly more dire situation,” said Adam Ni, a China researcher at Macquarie University in Sydney. Restricting gear is part of China’s “multipronged strategy” to “put more pressure on the protesters.”
For now, Peter is not worried about the pressure. “Hong Kong still has the Basic Law to protect us,” he said, referring to the city’s mini-constitution. Aside from needing to run his business, Peter said he supports the protesters, to whom he has given free helmets.
“This product is not attacking anyone, it’s just for protecting. It’s not right to forbid this stuff to import to Hong Kong,” he said. “Hong Kong is Hong Kong. Hong Kong is not China yet.”
Anna Kam in Hong Kong and Yang Liu in Beijing contributed to this report.