The Hong Kong government invoked a colonial-era law to ban face masks from Saturday, October 5. The ban, announced and implemented in less than 10 hours, provoked the pro-democracy protesters to immediately respond with more radical actions.

Anyone who violates the new regulation, including face paint, could face up to one year in jail or a fine of HK$25,000 (US$3,200).

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam pushed through the ban by imposing the Emergency Regulation Ordinance (ERO), a 1922 law that has not been used for over 50 years. The ERO, established and preserved from the British colonial era, allows Hong Kong's chief executive to implement restrictive bills without going through a regular legislative process.

By invoking the dated and rarely used emergency law, Lam stirred fears that further measures can be imposed to quell the ongoing protests.


Photo Credit: Athit Perawongmetha / Reuters / TPG Images

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam attends a news conference to discuss sweeping emergency laws at government office in Hong Kong, October 4, 2019.

"Today, Carrie Lam can violate civil rights by implementing a law in a second. Tomorrow, whenever pleased, she can freeze personal property, ban specific internet platforms, strip away the freedom of assembly, suppress the media, and extend the time limit for detention," wrote Lam Min Yat, a Hong Kong columnist.

The Progressive Lawyers Group (PLG), a Hong Kong-based pro-democracy group formed by law professionals, said the vagueness of the ERO "confers enormous discretionary powers to the executive branch," which potentially allows the government to abuse its power to end civil unrest.

Since the face mask ban applies equally to both peaceful and violent protesters, it will put protesters at greater risk of being reprimanded by their employers or searched at border controls, according to PLG. Without the protection of face masks, protesters would also be exposed to the toxins in tear gas and pepper spray during demonstrations.

"The invocation of the ERO today is a signal that the current administration is not interested in engaging the public in a constructive dialogue but that it continues to rely on the blunt instrument of law enforcement to solve a political crisis, even at the cost of tarnishing Hong Kong's reputation as a free port and financial hub," the PLG stated.


Photo Credit: Athit Perawongmetha / Reuters / TPG Images

An anti-government protester wears a mask during a demonstration in Wong Tai Sin district, in Hong Kong, October 4, 2019

Lev Nachman, Fulbright research fellow and Ph.D. candidate in political science at UC Irvine, said that the Hong Kong government has failed to stop mobilizations by waiting out the protests and escalating police violence. A new kind of escalation, like the face mask ban, is a natural progression from the government's perspective, he suggested.

"Unlike police violence, a mask ban is an institutional act of aggression against protesters directly from the government," Nachman told The News Lens. "But the Hong Kong protesters have shown the highest level of commitment to this social movement. As seen in recent weeks, protesters are just as likely to be arrested by the police whether they wear a mask or not, so this ban would not change their willingness to protest."

During her announcement yesterday, Carrie Lam said the prohibition on face-covering is "something that has already been introduced in a number of jurisdictions around the world."

Countries like France, Canada, and Ukraine have introduced similar measures against protesters wearing face masks, but none was implemented within 10 hours under the provisions of an emergency ordinance.

Earlier this year, France introduced a face mask ban in response to the "yellow vest" movement. Like the Hong Kong protests, the months-long movement in France has also been plagued by police violence, and the ban did little to minimize the protest crowds and violent clashes.

Amid the Euromaidan protests in 2014, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, in a similar fashion as Lam, rushed through an anti-protest bill that criminalized demonstrations. Heather McGill, Amnesty International’s expert on Ukraine, said the legislation was meant to prosecute protesters and it was only "paving the way for head-on confrontation with a large part of the population of the country."

Violence peaked as angry protesters returned to the streets of Kiev with Molotov cocktails. Banned from wearing helmets, the protesters instead wore metal cookware, Vice reported. Hundreds were wounded from the clashes, including police officers and journalists. Due to the unexpected backlash from protesters, nine out of the 12 anti-protest laws were repealed after 12 days.


Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG Images

People gesture during a rally organized by supporters of EU integration at Maidan Nezalezhnosti or Independence Square in central Kiev, December 8, 2013.

Hong Kong protesters, who have been studying Ukraine's movement, will likely follow suit. They have already reacted to the face mask ban with unprecedented violence on Friday night, just hours before the law took effect. Some protesters set fires at subway stations, forcing the railway operator to shut down the entire subway system.

During violent clashes, a 14-year-old boy was shot in his thigh by a plainclothes police officer, who had allegedly driven his car into a protest crowd.

Thousands of protesters also gathered in a shopping mall to declare the establishment of a provisional government by reading aloud a manifesto, which drew inspiration from the U.S. Declaration of Independence, calling for the rights to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."

Although some U.S. politicians have become more vocal about the Hong Kong protests, Nachman added, the United States has yet to pass any meaningful policy or offer assistance.

"Looking to major powers for help has shown to be ineffective for the movement," Nachman said. "Currently, there are dozens of other major mass protests against governments violating human rights such as Indonesia and Kashmir. Hongkongers should look to these other movements not just for solidarity, but to help boost each other's message and raise awareness to the rest of the world."

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TNL Editor: Lea Yang (@thenewslensintl)

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