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For the first time in 52 years, Hong Kong invokes emergency powers, bans face masks

Reuters Hong Kong | Updated on October 04, 2019 Published on October 04, 2019

Up in arms A woman wearing a Guy Fawkes mask taking part in a protest against a government ban on protesters wearing face masks in Hong Kong, on Friday   -  AFP

New powers also enable government to impose curfews, media censorship

Hong Kong’s embattled leader Carrie Lam invoked colonial-era emergency powers on Friday for the first time in more than 50 years in a dramatic move intended to quell escalating violence in the Chinese-ruled city.

Lam, speaking at a news conference, said a ban on face masks would take effect on Saturday under the emergency laws that allow authorities to “make any regulations whatsoever” in whatever they deem to be in the public interest.

The emergency laws allow curfews, censorship of the media, control of harbours, ports and transport, although Lam did not specify any particular action that might follow, beyond the mask ban.

But it was far from clear if the introduction of emergency powers would deter the protesters.

Banks and shops in the busy Central district closed early in anticipation of violence as some protesters burned Chinese flags and chanted ‘You burn with us’. Thousands of demonstrators gathered in other parts of the territory.

“The anti-mask law has become a tool of tyranny,” said Samuel Yeung, an 18-year-old university student in Central.

“They can make use of the emergency law to enact any policies or laws that the government wants. There’s no rule of law anymore. We can only be united and protest.”

Many protesters wear masks to hide their identity due to fears employers could face pressure to take action against them.

“Almost all protesters wear masks, with the intention of hiding their identity. That’s why they have become more unbridled,” said Lam.

“We can’t keep the existing regulations idle and let violence escalate and the situation continue to deteriorate.”

Lam described the territory as being in serious danger, but not in a state of emergency.

Pro-Beijing groups had been pushing for a mask ban but it was not clear how the government would implement it in a city where many of its 7.4 million residents wear them every day to protect against infection following the outbreak of the deadly Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in 2003.

Police can stop anyone in public and ask them to remove a mask if the officer believes it may prevent identification, according to the law. Exceptions are made if the person wearing a mask can prove they need it for medical, religious or professional reasons. Offenders face a maximum fine of HK$25,000 ($3,200) and imprisonment for a year, according to details of the prohibition published by the government.

Four months of anti-government protests have plunged Hong Kong into its biggest political crisis since its handover from Britain to Beijing in 1997 under a “one country, two systems” formula granting it autonomy.

What began as opposition to a proposed extradition law, that could have seen people sent for trial in mainland courts, has grown into a broad pro-democracy movement and a serious challenge to Chinese leader Xi Jinping.

‘Think twice’

Authorities had already loosened guidelines on the use of force by police, according to documents seen by Reuters, but the emergency powers could backfire, some analysts fear. “This is the next significant miscalculation,” said Phill Hynes, head of political risk and analysis at ISS Risk, shortly before the widely expected introduction of the emergency laws.

“The next will be barring certain candidates from running in District Council elections. Both will nicely inflame tensions and increase protests and actions.”

Pro-democracy campaigners condemned Lam’s decision.

“This is an ancient, colonial set of regulations, and you don’t use them unless you can’t legislate anymore,” said Martin Lee, a veteran activist and one of the city’s most prominent lawyers. “Once you start, there’s no end to it.” The UN human rights office said Hong Kong must protect the right to freedom of assembly and Britain urged its former colony not to aggravate tension.

Published on October 04, 2019
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