A protester wearing a mask takes part in a protest in Wanchai in Hong Kong on October 4, 2019, when people hit the streets after the government announced a ban on face-masks. Photo: Philip Fong / AFP

The Hong Kong government has invoked a colonial-era law to ban protesters from wearing face masks and protesters responded by taking to the streets in the Central business district.

Chief executive Carrie Lam and top ministries announced the move at a press conference, saying it was designed to control increasing violence.

The ban will apply to all protests, whether authorized or not, and will come into effect tomorrow – October 5. Hong Kong’s Executive Council met to discuss the move on Friday morning.

Any person who violates the law could face up to a year in jail and a fine of up to HK$25,000 (US$3,187).

Hong Kongers will still be allowed to wear face masks in the street – a common practice in a city ever since a SARS outbreak killed more than 300 people in 2003.

But police are allowed to force people to take their masks off. Those who refuse could face six months in jail and a fine of up to HK$10,000.

Exemptions have been made for legitimate religious and medical reasons and for those who need to wear masks for their jobs – such as journalists donning respirators during clashes when teargas is used.

Lam admitted that the decision was a difficult one to make but said enacting an emergency ordinance was not proclaiming that the city has entered a state of emergency.

Protesters burn items near the entrance to Hong Kong’s Admiralty MTR station on October 4, 2019. Photo: Mohd Rasfan / AFP

It is believed to be only the second time in 52 years that these emergency powers have been invoked and the only time since the city was returned to China by Britain in 1997.

But Lam said the move was not a step closer to authoritarianism – the regulation was a piece of existing and valid legislation.

But with violent clashes escalating – reaching an alarming level and causing numerous injuries, Lam said she and her administration had a responsibility to use all available laws to restore calm.

‘Deterrent effect’

“We believe the new law will create a deterrent effect and assist police enforcement,” Lam said.

“As a responsible government, we will continue [to] have to identify other means that we can tackle the situation with. But in doing so… we will be extremely cautious to make sure that whatever we do is in the overall public interest.”

According to the Emergency Regulations Ordinance, the Chief Executive can bypass the Legislative Council and make any regulations he or she consider desirable in the public interest when there is an emergency or public danger in Hong Kong.

The provisions also give the Chief Executive the power to authorize arrests, detentions and deportations, censor the press, change laws or enact new ones.

1967 riots

The only other time the law has been invoked was during the 1967 Hong Kong riots.

Lam said violence has spread through the city and is escalating, with people hurling petrol bombs, vandalizing public and private areas, assaulting people who hold different views and attempting to snatch police officers’ guns. These things had all been done by people wearing masks.

Asked if she was certain that the ban could reduce the crisis on the streets and end the violence, Lam conceded: “We are not 100% sure.”

Secretary for Justice Teresa Cheng brushed aside concern that the ban would restrict people’s freedom of speech and expression, saying people could still free and lawfully take part in a peaceful public event without wearing a face mask.

But the ban would stop people from concealing their identity and breaking the law, Cheng said.

The Secretary for Security, John Lee Ka-chiu, said journalists could wear face masks when they cover the news and police could continue wearing masks – as they can be “easily identified” by numbers on their helmets.

Over the past four months, there have been numerous complaints that police have failed to clearly show their warrant cards or identification numbers.

Carrie Lam announces face masks ban on Friday. Photo: RTHK

Lam said she was worried that more students were being arrested, adding “our future is placed in a very dangerous position,” so the government had to do its utmost to prevent violence and students from breaking the law.

There was also a broad consensus among people that the violence must end and order be restored.

“This regulation targets rioters, or those who resort to violence,” she said.

Other countries

Similar laws have been passed in other countries. In 2010 France and Belgium passed broad prohibitions on wearing clothing that covers one’s face except for artistic or ceremonial purposes. Similar rules are in force in Australia, Austria, Bulgaria, Egypt, Germany and the Netherlands.

France passed another law earlier this year banning masks in public demonstrations following the “yellow vest” protests.

However, pro-democracy lawmakers said the enactment was like pouring gasoline on a fire, as most of the countries that introduced such a law had democratic governments.

Pro-democracy lawmaker Alan Leong Ka-kit said political problems require political solutions, and the passing of anti-mask laws overseas was controversial because the definition of “reasonable situations for wearing masks” was debatable.

“Ukraine intended to pacify the chaos through such legislation and it provoked a revolution,” he said.

Lam and her administration have been under pressure to end protests that have dragged on for more than four months. They were initially provoked by the government’s bid to change the extradition law, to allow some citizens to be tried on the mainland.

On Thursday, a group of pro-establishment lawmakers, National People’s Congress members, retired police officers and pro-Beijing lawyers announced they would set up a committee to push forward the launch of an anti-mask law.

The government’s decision comes after violent protests on October 1, the 70th anniversary of the People’s Republic, when there were clashes all over the city.

Lunchtime protest

The initial response to the news was hostility. Within hours of the news on Friday, protesters were vowing to defy the law across Hong Kong.

Indeed, several thousand people in suits put on face masks and took to the streets in Central during lunch hour, chanting slogans and walking all the way to Sheng Wan.

At 6 pm, protesters set fire to barricades on Connaught Road, a major thoroughfare on Hong Kong Island. Thousands of people were still on the streets at the time of going to press.

More flash mob protests occurred in various districts, with protesters temporarily blocking roads in Kowloon Tong and setting up makeshift barriers on Waterloo Road at the start of the evening rush hour.

Crowds were seen at the APM mall in Kwun Tong and at New Town Plaza in Shatin to express their discontent, chanting slogans and singing anti-extradition songs. Many shops closed earlier on Friday.

Gunfire and gasoline bombs

In the northern district of Yuen Long, a police officer opened fire when he was surrounded in his car and attacked by protesters, a gasoline bomb exploding at his feet.

YouTube video

“A large crowd of rioters attacked a plainclothes officer. He fell into the ground, then got beaten by a lot of people. Under this life-threatening situation, the police officer fired a live round for his safety,” police said in a statement.

The entire subway network was also suspended, leaving protesters, locals and Friday night revellers stranded.

Online forums used by protesters filled with angry comments and vows to hit the streets over the three-day weekend.

“Youngsters are risking their lives, they don’t mind being jailed for 10 years, so wearing masks is not a problem,” a 34-year-old office worker wearing a surgical mask, who gave her first name as Mary, told AFP.

People vow to defy the law after taking to the street in Central, the business center of Hong Kong. Photo: RTHK
Two buses were used to block traffic in a protest in Central against the mask law. Photo: WhatsApp

– With additional reporting by AFP

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