Hong Kong has exerted emergency powers, invoking the first face-mask ban in more than half a century, as months of protests against Chinese extradition practices and police brutality have continued to escalate.
The city’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam called for the move on Friday. According to Bloomberg, Lam hoped the measure would deter violence and vandalism by protesters; however even as she announced the decision, more protesters gathered in the streets nearby and shops closed, forecasting more violent and destructive protests.
The protests formally began in June in opposition to a Hong Kong bill that would have allowed citizens and even foreign visitors caught up in criminal proceedings to be extradited to the Chinese mainland to face trial in courts dominated by the country’s Communist Party.
While Lam moved to formally withdraw the controversial bill in September, many protesters have remained adamant that she address police brutality spawned through the course of protests, and protesters have even called for her resignation.
Protesters have recently incorporated petrol bombs, corrosive chemicals and other weapons and violence throughout the protests have increased.
In the contrast, the police have been accused of torturing detained protesters.
On Tuesday, during open protests against China’s National Day and the 70th anniversary of the founding of the communist People’s Republic of China, one protester was shot in the chest with live ammunition at point-blank range by a riot police officer.
Police reportedly fired four other warning shots to disperse protests in other areas of the city.
Many protesters have adopted the face masks in recent months for fear of identification and subsequent retribution by Hong Kong authorities.
In her Friday announcement, Lam said the policing situation remains “fluid” and said the government is considering additional measures if the protests worsen.
Lam warned the international community against interference. She asked other countries to consider the protests in a “comprehensive and impartial manner.”
“I don’t see how you could relate this to a step closer to authoritarianism,” she said, rebuffing a critical line of questioning after her mask ban announcement. “This is a responsible act to deal with an extremely difficult situation, which I hope the world has sympathy.”
The Civil Human Rights Front — an organizer of many of the larger Hong Kong protests — called Lam’s Friday decision “dictatorship rule.”
Hong Kong Security Secretary John Lee pointed to mask bans in Canada, France, Germany, Spain, and the U.S. as examples of their accepted use elsewhere and even said there would be a carve-out for the use of face masks by journalists covering the protests.
In a tweet, Hu Xijin — the editor of the Chinese state-backed Global Times — cited mask bans in other countries like Canada and in the state of New York and warned the international community against “nasty double standards.”
There's strong demand in Hong Kong calling for anti-mask law. Most of the violent activities in Hong Kong were committed by masked rioters. It's reported there're laws banning masks at protest in Canada and New York State. Hope the West won't apply nasty double standards.
— Hu Xijin 胡锡进 (@HuXijin_GT) October 3, 2019
As news of the decision first came out, protests began at 11 sites, including shopping centers across Hong Kong.
“Protesters will still come out, no matter whether this law is being enforced or not,” one protester who only identified himself by the surname Chan, told Bloomberg. “The anti-mask law only has one year, so the cost would be much less compared to other laws that we are violating.”
Another protester told Bloomberg the decision is a “Pandora’s box” for additional problems in the protests. He said protesters will “continue to fight.”
“The young are saying they’re prepared to die for this cause. They’ll still be out there wearing their masks,” Claudia Mo, a pro-democracy lawmaker in Hong Kong, warned of the backlash to the mask ban.