HONG KONG – Hong Kong invoked colonial-era emergency powers for the first time in more than half a century to ban face masks for protesters in a bid to quell months of violent unrest.
Chief Executive Carrie Lam announced the measure on Friday during a press briefing with 16 members of her Cabinet, citing a rise in violence by protesters in recent weeks.
The prohibition on face masks will have a “deterrent effect” to stop violence at protests and help police enforce the law, she told reporters, adding that the measure didn’t mean Hong Kong was under a state of emergency.
“The violence is destroying Hong Kong,” Lam said. “We must save the present Hong Kong and the future Hong Kong.”
Violators of the ban, which will include exemptions, could get a jail term of as much as one year or a fine of 25,000 Hong Kong dollars ($3,190), according to a copy of the document handed to reporters.
People will have a reasonable excuse to use facial coverings if required for physical safety at work, for religious purposes or for a pre-existing medical or health reason, Lam said.
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.
“This is like opening a Pandora’s box — who knows what will come next after this ban?” said one man protesting in central Hong Kong on Friday afternoon, who only gave his surname Lau. “But the government should know that if it insists, and doesn’t listen to the people, we won’t give up and will keep the government accountable. We will continue our fight.”
In Malaysia, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad said later that Lam should resign and warned China would take “harsh action” to end the demonstrations.
Mohamad — who at 94 is the world’s oldest leader — said Lam “is in a dilemma.”
“She has to obey the masters, at the same time she has to ask her conscience,” he told a news conference. “Her conscience says that the people of Hong Kong are right in rejecting the (extradition) law. “But on the other hand, she knows the consequence of rejecting the law. For the administrator, I think (the) best thing is to resign.”
The face mask has become a symbol of resistance among protesters who fear retribution if they are identified: China has already put pressure on 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. “The young are saying they’re prepared to die for this cause. They’ll still be out there wearing their masks.”
Police fired tear gas and pepper spray at protesters in the residential area of Tai Koo on Thursday night as demonstrations erupted at 11 sites and shopping centers across the city following reports a mask ban was to be announced, the South China Morning Post reported.
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.”
First passed by the British government in 1922 to quell a seamen’s strike, 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.
The move comes shortly after a protester was shot in violent demonstrations that once again shook the city on Oct. 1 as Chinese President Xi Jinping celebrated 70 years of Communist Party rule in Beijing.
The law would be difficult to enforce, the Post reported, and could spur court challenges as a rights violation. One police inspector 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.