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Hong Kong court brings first charges for violation of mask ban

Hong Kong protests (Studio Incendo/WikiCommons)
October 08, 2019

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

Authorities in Hong Kong on Monday charged the first two people with violating a hugely unpopular mask ban passed by chief executive Carrie Lam under colonial-era emergency powers last week.

More than 100 people showed up outside Eastern District Magistrates Court in support of the first two people to be charged under a newly enacted mask ban, which came after Lam invoked emergency powers enabling her administration to pass any decree it sees as being in the public interest.

The emergency powers decree sparked a long weekend of mass protests by thousands of mask-wearing people across the city, in spite of a city-wide shutdown of train services by the Mass Transit Railway (MTR).

“It’s not a crime to wear a mask!” the supporters chanted. “This is an unreasonable law!”

An 18-year-old student at City University and a 38-year-old unemployed woman were charged jointly on one count of “illegal assembly” and one count of “violating the mask ban” after being arrested in the Kowloon district of Lam Tin.

Both were released on bail, placed under curfew, and are banned from leaving Hong Kong.

Former colonial governor Chris Patten hit out at Lam’s mask ban and recent police violence against protesters and bystanders, saying he believes it is only a matter of time before someone is shot and killed by police.

“I fear for the future, unless Carrie Lam actually intervenes and understands the importance of dialogue, understands the importance of talking to people, and understands the importance of giving them the opportunity of reviewing, through an independent commission of inquiry, how we got to this situation,” Patten told Sky News.

“Before long, unless we’re very, very lucky, people are going to get killed, people are going to get shot,” he said. “The idea that with public order policing, you send police forces out with live bullets, with live ammunition, is preposterous.”

He added: “And even people who are not taking part in anything violent on the whole will find good… will find reasons for saying that they understand why the violence is going ahead. I do not condone it. I do not want to see it, but for that matter I don’t want to see the sort of policing that we’ve had from from the Hong Kong Police Force.”

Patten also said Lam would be “crazy” to have brought in the mask ban in the absence of strong pressure from the ruling Chinese Communist Party in Beijing.

“The face masks business – absolutely madness, which people will protest against. So the way forward is to engage with the demonstrators, particularly the peaceful demonstrators,” he said.

Heavily influenced by Beijing

Beijing hit out at Patten’s “cold-bloodedness, hypocrisy and paranoia.” China’s foreign ministry said the mask ban was reasonable, and that the UK had led the world in enacting such bans both in the early 18th century and again eight years ago.

Patten was ignoring the serious threat to people’s lives in Hong Kong, the Hong Kong office of the foreign ministry said in a statement.

Bruce Lui, senior journalism lecturer at HKBU, agreed that Lam’s handling of the protests since they escalated last June was likely heavily influenced by Beijing.

“I think the whole thing has been Beijing’s doing,” Lui said. He said Beijing hasn’t actually ruled out an independent inquiry into police actions and the government’s handling of the protests, one of the five key demands of the protest movement.

“If things get worse to the extent that they harm some of the key material interests of the Chinese Communist Party, as well as threatening its authority, then I think Beijing will set up an independent inquiry at a later stage in the game, and require certain officials to resign,” he said.

Communist Party mouthpiece the People’s Daily said in a commentary on Monday that there is an “urgent need to restore order in Hong Kong,” which was why the mask ban was passed by Lam and her cabinet, the Executive Council (ExCo).

The paper described the law as a kind of “sterilization and disinfection” for Hong Kong.

Anti-government and anti-police protests continued on Monday, with angry residents in Hong Kong attacking police in Tseung Kwan O district after officers made several arrests there.

Protesters threw a a Molotov cocktail, a small bicycle, metal poles and other objects at police, who fired tear gas back in response, according the Apple Daily live video feed.

They also broke into the MTR station and vandalized it, in protest at mass closures of subway stations to protesters, but not to police.

Firefighters were called to the scene after some protesters set fire to bicycles and other debris in the middle of the road late on Monday, government broadcaster RTHK reported.

Meanwhile, the Hong Kong Education Bureau sent out a letter to all of the city’s schools to remind students about the mask ban.

Pressure on schoolchildren

Masks are only to be worn for health or religious reasons, it said. According to some media reports, heads of school have been asked to report back on the numbers of pupils wearing masks or participation in strikes or protest actions in the next few days.

Teddy Tang, who heads the Hong Kong Association of the Heads of Secondary Schools, said the authorities wouldn’t be verifying the figures reported, however.

“The Education Bureau won’t be verifying these numbers with the school,” Tang said. “Neither do schools need to report students’ names.”

But a member of a youth anti-extradition group who gave only his surname Leung said the order would likely create fear and uncertainty among schoolchildren, however.

“The authorities are doing this to create a climate of fear,” Leung told RFA, but added that he didn’t think it would work.

“Many high school students are not even afraid of being reported by the school,” he said. “I know of some students who went to the court to support protesters accused of rioting, even though they risked being marked as absent.”

“High schoolers won’t be afraid of retaliation from their schools or from the education bureau.”

The government has banned people from covering up their faces in public from Oct. 5, under the 1922 Emergency Regulations Ordinance giving the government and police special powers in times of “serious public danger” without the need to go through the Legislative Council (LegCo).

The decision to invoke emergency legislation to ban face-masks in public places has paved the way for potentially draconian controls on every aspect of life and business in the city, as it allows the chief executive and ExCo to make new laws considered to be in the public interest, including ordering the inspection and control of publications, maps, photos, and communications and communications methods.

Police can also be authorized to make arrests and detentions, deportations, to search and seize industrial goods and facilities, as well as implement controls and checks on goods under transportation, and to enter, search and confiscate private property.

The power to control communications has sparked concerns that the authorities could soon also move to limit internet freedom, imposing controls and blocks that are similar to the Great Firewall that limits what internet users can see in mainland China.