This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
Police used tear gas and pepper spray to clear revelers from the streets of downtown Hong Kong on Thursday night after thousands marched in a Halloween “masquerade” in spite of widespread closures of public transportation as months of protests tipped the city’s economy into recession.
Crowds of protesters gathered in Victoria Park in defiance of an Oct. 5 ban on the wearing of masks in public brought in by chief executive Carrie Lam under colonial-era emergency laws.
Some wore Anonymous masks inspired by the movie V for Vendetta, while others sported full-face masks of Lam as a vampire, and still others wore Winnie the Pooh masks in a dig at President Xi Jinping. Still others came dressed as dinosaurs, video game hero Mario and Disney princesses.
Chanting “Five demands, not one less!” the protesters marched towards the downtown Central business district from the shopping district of Causeway Bay, where riot police were already gathering and warning party-goers to leave or face being tear gassed or pepper-sprayed.
The new law gives police the power to ask a wearer to remove the mask in order to establish the identity of the person. While journalists are allowed to wear masks for reasons of professional protection, there have been numerous reports of police ripping their masks off in spite of their having clearly displayed press credentials.
Anyone gathering in the popular Central nightspot of Lan Kwai Fong was warned from around 8.00 p.m. that they were taking part in an “illegal assembly,” and ordered to leave. Nearby subway stations were shut down soon after, in what many have slammed as an effective curfew in a city where the majority rely on public transportation to get around.
Many bar-goers refused to comply, yelling obscenities at police, or just saying they wanted to be left to party, but eventually columns of police in full riot gear moved in and emptied the street, leaving it shut down and ghostly quiet on what is usually one of the busiest nights of the year.
A protester who gave only her surname Kwun told RFA that she had come out to defy the ban and to show she wasn’t afraid of the authorities.
“I don’t think they are going to be able to ban this very effectively,” Kwun said. “It’s hard to stop Hongkongers from doing anything, because you’re just going to spark even more public anger.”
“Once people get angry, then they will protest even more,” she said, adding that a High Court injunction banning online messages encouraging or inciting violence would also have little effect.
The temporary ban at the request of the department of justice names the LIHKG forum and the encrypted messaging app Telegram, both of which are widely used by protesters.
Great Firewall in Hong Kong?
The injunction bans online messages that “promote, encourage, or incite others to use violence or intimidation to harm others or their property.”
“What are they going to do — force us to circumvent the Great Firewall [like in mainland China]?” Kwun said. “In today‘s world, if they ban Telegram and LIHKG then there’ll be something else.”
Civic Party lawmaker Alvin Yeung said the injunction was too vaguely worded.
“The definition of what kind of messages are regarded as inciting violence is pretty broad and pretty vague,” Yeung said. “This actually amounts to a ban on freedom of speech.”
“If this government has a problem with Telegram, this isn’t even located in Hong Kong, so how are they going to deal with that?” he said. “Are they going to bring in a firewall? If so, is it really worth it? Of course it’s disproportionate.”
Earlier in the day, pro-democracy lawmakers gathered at the High Court to mount a legal challenge to the invoking of emergency powers, which 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 her cabinet to make instant 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.
Senior Counsel Gladys Li told the High Court that Lam could have requested that the Legislative Council (LegCo) hold a special session instead of triggering the 1922 ordinance, and that bypassing the city’s legislature was against its mini-constitution, the Basic Law.
Li said that there is no justification required for any law under the ban, and no objective criteria to be applied.
Lawmaker Dennis Kwok, who represents the legal profession in LegCo, said the case is being heard by two judges, a sign that the judiciary regards the case as being of great importance.
Hong Kong barrister and Progressive Lawyers Group member Johnny So said those arguing against the use of emergency powers could say that they were disproportionate.
“It could be said that the situation wasn’t chaotic and there was therefore no need to invoke emergency laws,” So said. “I believe that the court’s deliberations will rest on whether or not it was appropriate to use the law at the outset or whether it was genuinely necessary at the time.”
Worst economic news in a decade
The deadly quiet that descended on Lan Kwai Fong on Thursday evening echoed earlier warnings about the state of economic activity as mass anti-government protests in the city entered their fifth month.
Hong Kong’s economy contracted by 3.2 percent in the third quarter of 2019, compared with the previous quarter, with economic growth falling by 2.9 percent compared with the third quarter of 2018.
Both figures are the worst economic news the city has seen in a decade.
The government blamed the global economic slowdown, Sino-US trade frictions and the anti-government protest movement for the worsening slowdown.
In the popular tourist attraction of Ladies’ Street in Mong Kok, many shops have been forced to close for lack of business, while those that have remained cite rapidly falling sales.
A business owner surnamed Chan said she has seen a 70-percent reduction in turnover in recent months, worse than in the days of the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) epidemic of 2003.
“Business is worse than it was during SARS,” Chan said. “We had a shop here during the SARS epidemic, and it was like a ghost town, awful. It’s been as bad as that in the past few months.”
A restaurateur surnamed Lau told RFA that he often has empty seats nowadays, even during peak tourist season, and is forced to close early ahead of protests.
The owner of a clothing store in a mall across the street surnamed Chan said he has lost nearly half his business in the past month, and blamed the mask ban.
“We need social stability, reliable customer demand and a reliable footfall to do business,” he said.
The Li Ka-shing Foundation set up by Hong Kong’s richest man said it had earmarked H.K.$1 billion fund to help mom-and-pop businesses through a “crunch time.”
The Crunch Time Instant Relief Fund will see the disbursement of HK$200 million to support the food and beverage industry worth HK$60,000 per business of less than 50 employees by the end of November, according to a press release on the Foundation’s website.