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Hong Kong leader invokes colonial-era emergency powers to ban masks, sparking more protests

Anti-government office workers attend a lunchtime protest in Hong Kong on Friday after local media reported an expected ban on face masks under emergency law. (Tyrone Siu/Reuters)

HONG KONG — Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam invoked rarely used and sweeping emergency powers Friday to ban face masks at demonstrations, a move that sought to quell pro-democracy protests — but that quickly had the opposite effect, intensifying anger on the streets.

Lam’s decision to use colonial-era security powers further inflamed tensions roiling since June and heightened fears that Hong Kong’s basic freedoms were being eroded. The order effectively expands police powers of arrest, even as many in Hong Kong fear that police are operating with impunity in their growing use of force.

It could also risk tainting Hong Kong’s hard-won reputation as an open financial hub, already under strain because of the upheaval of recent months. 

“Protesters’ violence has been escalating and has reached a very alarming level in the past few days, causing numerous injuries and leading Hong Kong to a chaotic and panicked situation,” Lam said in a news conference. Behind her, a banner read: “Treasure Hong Kong, End Violence.”

“As a responsible government, we have the duty to use all available means to stop the escalating violence and restore calm in society,” she said.

Lam added that while the emergency ordinance is being enacted to ban the masks, Hong Kong itself was not in a state of emergency but instead in an “occasion of serious danger” that required such laws. 

Hong Kong's embattled leader Carrie Lam invoked colonial-era emergency powers to ban face masks in a move intended to quell escalating violence in the city. (Video: Reuters)

Critics were quick to reject the measure and the use of emergency laws, citing a variety of reasons, the most fundamental being predictions that it won’t work.

 On Friday night, a crowd of thousands peacefully marched more than three miles through the city in opposition to the announcement and to the government. The demonstration later turned violent in several districts, with protesters throwing gasoline bombs and setting fire to symbolic targets such as Chinese banks and subway stations.

Hong Kong’s entire subway system shut down on Oct. 4 as protesters blocked roads and set fires in the city a new mask ban was enacted. (Video: Joel Christian via Storyful)

Police said a plainclothes officer had fired one shot in self-defense against a “large group of rioters” who threw a gasoline bomb at the officer, lighting his body on fire.

 The Hong Kong Hospital Authority said a 14-year-old boy had been shot in the thigh.

Thirty others were also sent to hospital for protest-related injuries. Three, including the gunshot victim, remain critical.

The entire subway network was shut on Friday night because of the unrest, and remained closed into Saturday morning. It left many stranded, forced to walk hours to get home.

“We should be prepared for the worst,” said Michael Tien, a pro-Beijing lawmaker. Tien said he urged Lam and authorities in Beijing to offer a concession to the protest movement along with the ban, which he characterized as pushed by the police. 

“While giving the police the anti-mask law they wanted, secure from them the acceptance of an [independent investigation] into the force,” he said. “Now, it’s all stick and no carrot.” 

The ban was put in place at midnight local time. It applies to rallies that have been given a go-ahead by police, as well as those that are unauthorized. The law authorizes a police officer to order the removal of facial coverings and take them off forcefully if the person does not comply. Noncompliance would be punishable by a fine or a jail term of up to a year. 

For many in Hong Kong, Beijing’s troops are already here: The Hong Kong Police Force

Regina Ip, a pro-Beijing lawmaker and a member of Hong Kong’s executive council, said in an interview that such a ban should have come earlier in response to violence that has become “totally unjustifiable.” 

“Freedom to express their views is not absolute,” she said of the protesters. “These people are interfering with our freedoms.” 

The mask ban was also pushed by a more hardcore group of Beijing loyalists within Lam’s government who have accused her of being too soft on the unrest roiling the city.

In central Hong Kong, thousands of protesters filled the streets at lunchtime in a demonstration that continued into the evening after work hours. The protesters — some in heels or suits — left high-rise offices to join the march. Almost all of them wore masks. 

“This is adding fuel to the fire,” Fernando Cheung, a pro-democracy lawmaker, said of the mask ban. “The result is clear. This will mark the beginning of riots in Hong Kong.”

Lam’s announcement came three days after widespread demonstrations across Hong Kong on Tuesday, the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China — rallies that degenerated into street battles between protesters and police. Officers fired at protesters multiple times, using live ammunition for the first time since the demonstrations erupted in June. 

One protester was shot in the chest by an officer at close range after a group of protesters attacked police. The incident sparked even more demonstrations this week. The 18-year-old student, who remains hospitalized, was charged Thursday with rioting and assaulting a police officer. Police have said the shooting was justified. 

Hong Kong protester shot as police disperse anti-China demonstrations on National Day

Beijing appeared to support the mask ban. Yang Guang, spokesman for China’s Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office, said the chaotic situation there “cannot continue endlessly.”

Protests began over a bill to allow extraditions to mainland China that many feared would erode the city’s freedoms and the independence of its reputable legal system. They have since swelled into an all-out rebuke of Hong Kong’s political system, in which leaders are handpicked by and answerable to Beijing. 

Demonstrators are pushing five demands, including an independent investigation of the police, but the government has responded only to one, the full withdrawal of the extradition bill.

On one major thoroughfare Friday, protesters marched down a four-lane road chanting “Fight back, Hong Kong!” and “Fight for freedom!” The march brought traffic to a halt, but some drivers stuck in the jam held up five fingers — a symbol of the five demands of protesters — outside the windows of their luxury sedans, beeping their horns in a show of support. 

Penny, 35, who said he had worked in finance for 10 years, challenged police to use force against workers like him marching in the city center. 

“If the police dare to shoot us in Central during midday, come on and do it. Don’t be a coward,” he said, like others using only his first name, for fear of retribution. “If Carrie Lam wants a police state, that is fine. We are not afraid.”

Others expressed fears that Lam’s move was only the beginning of what would be an increasingly repressive crackdown on dissent. Lam has said repeatedly that a solution to the political crisis can be reached through dialogue. She held a community listening session last month, but the move failed to win her any support. 

“This is only the first step. In the coming weeks and months, [the government] will continue to use more force to push protesters not to voice any opposition,” said Justin, 27, a corporate finance worker wearing a respirator, yellow construction helmet and goggles with tailored dress pants and a fitted shirt. 

Masks, cash and apps: How Hong Kong’s protesters find ways to outwit the surveillance state

Separately on Friday, the Education Bureau sent a letter to schools telling them to warn students not to wear masks inside or outside school, other than for religious or health purposes. “Schools are not a place to express your political views,” the letter said. 

Students have been a major force in the recent protests and make up a large share of the more than 2,000 people arrested in street demonstrations. They have also organized class boycotts and other shows of solidarity inside the classroom. 

The emergency powers, which date to 1922 when Hong Kong was under British colonial rule, allow authorities to censor the media; seize property; take control of all transportation, manufacturing and trade in the city; and detain people for lengthy periods.

Some legal experts say the emergency powers are not in line with Hong Kong’s Basic Law, which grants the city its cherished freedoms, including the right to assembly. 

Eric Cheung, a principal lecturer at the University of Hong Kong Faculty of Law, said the use of the emergency ordinance to enact the law was alarming. 

“It sets a very bad and dangerous precedent in bypassing all of the normal legislative processes,” he said. “It means you can now pass a law without any consultation, without any debate, without any public participation or voting by the Legislative Council.” 

He added that the move is “very, very damaging to Hong Kong” and “changes the whole legal landscape.”

Lam did not rule out enacting other regulations to curb protests, including a curfew. 

Ronny Tong, a member of Hong Kong’s executive council and a legal adviser to Lam, said the decision was made because “something had to be done” after the Tuesday shooting.

“There’s lots of limitations all around, in terms of the kinds of decisions that the Hong Kong government can make. We just have to cross our fingers and hope that this decision can work,” he said. “This is not being done with ill will. It is being done with the best interests of Hong Kong at heart.”

Tiffany Liang contributed to this report. 

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