Hong Kong set to ban face masks in bid to quell months of unrest

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Hong Kong is expected to ban face masks for protesters on Friday in a bid to quell months of violent unrest, invoking emergency rule for the first time since the city came under Chinese control in 1997.

Violators of the ban, which will include exemptions, could get a jail term of as much as one year or a fine of HK$25,000 ($3,190), the South China Morning Post reported, citing people it didn’t identify.

The former British colony is also studying extending the detention period of suspects beyond 48 hours, given the manpower needed to handle the large volume of protest arrests, the Oriental Daily reported.

The move to invoke colonial-era emergency powers — last used more than 50 years ago — is likely to trigger intense clashes this weekend, with protesters already calling for mass demonstrations to oppose the law. The face mask has become a symbol of resistance among protesters who fear retribution if they are identified: China has already applied pressure to businesses such as Cathay Pacific Airways Ltd. to fire employees who have participated in demonstrations.

“I’m terrified of the possible backlash,” said Claudia Mo, a pro-democracy lawmaker in Hong Kong. “The young are saying they’re prepared to die for this cause. They’ll still be out there wearing their masks. And the police will charge at them.”

Police fired tear gas and pepper spray at protesters in the residential area of Tai Koo Thursday night as demonstrations erupted at 11 sites and shopping centers across the city following the reports, the SCMP said. There were also calls for a protest in the Central business district at 12:30 p.m. on Friday.

In China, Hu Xijin, editor-in-chief of the Communist Party-backed Global Times newspaper, said in a tweet that Western countries shouldn’t apply “nasty double standards” when reacting to the ban, while noting that Canada and the U.S. state of New York were reported to have similar laws.

“There’s strong demand in Hong Kong calling for anti-mask law,” Hu said. “Most of the violent activities in Hong Kong were committed by masked rioters.”

Hong Kong to Enact Rare Emergency Rule for Mask Ban, Reports Say

First passed by the British government in 1922 to quell a seamen’s strike in Hong Kong’s harbor, the emergency law was last used by the colonial administration to help put down riots that rocked the trading hub in 1967. Denounced by protest leaders as a form of martial law, it could give the government greater leeway to arrest citizens, censor publications, shut off communications networks and search premises without warrants, among other measures.

Protesters Mark The 70th Anniversary of People’s Republic of China In Hong Kong
Demonstrators gather on an overpass during a protest in the Central district, Oct. 1. Photographer: Eduardo Leal/Bloomberg
The move would come shortly after a protester was shot in violent demonstrations that once again shook the city on Oct. 1, as President Xi Jinping celebrated 70 years of Communist party rule in Beijing. Hong Kong stocks briefly jumped on the reports in afternoon trade on Thursday, rapidly erasing an earlier decline.

A spokesman for Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s office wasn’t immediately able to comment on the reports when reached by phone Thursday afternoon.

The law would be difficult to enforce, the Post reported, and could spur court challenges as a rights violation. One police inspector, who requested anonymity, told the Post that the move would stir up more trouble.

It could also fuel further international condemnation of Lam’s government. Senator Elizabeth Warren, a frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination, called for the U.S. to stand up to China in Hong Kong. She also urged America to stop exports of police gear to the city and provide temporary protected status to its residents.

“Getting China right takes more than bellicose tweets coupled with fawning summits—and more than uncoordinated and often counterproductive tariffs that burden ordinary Americans,” she wrote in a Foreign Policy magazine opinion piece outlining her plan for addressing issues in the city.