Hong Kong’s ban on masks at protests sparks night of violent protests
The city’s Mass Transit Railway (MTR) network suspended all of its operations after demonstrators vandalized multiple train stations, setting fire to entrances and smashing ticketing facilities. Numerous mainland Chinese-owned banks and stores were also targeted by protesters.
All of the city’s 161 MTR stations remained closed Saturday, as did many major shopping malls, bank branches and supermarket chains. Many of the grocery stores and banking facilities that were open had long lines reminiscent of the run-up to typhoons, as Hong Kongers withdrew cash and stocked up on supplies.
Violent protests which began Friday stretched into the early hours of Saturday, beyond the midnight deadline when the new anti-mask regulations began. They spread out across the city and soon devolved into violent clashes, with protesters throwing petrol bombs and police responding with pepper spray and tear gas.
Speaking Saturday, Hong Kong’s leader Carrie Lam said the extent of the vandalism the night before was “unprecedented.”
“The extreme acts by rioters wearing masks is appalling,” she said, adding that the violence justified the banning of face coverings. “We can no longer tolerate rioters destroying the Hong Kong we cherished. We must quickly restore Hong Kong Kong to peace.”
A protest march in Causeway Bay in central Hong Kong only attracted a few hundred participants Saturday afternoon. They chanted for the mask law to be repealed, but many opted to stay home, some unable to get there due to transport disruptions, others unwilling to put themselves at risk of being unable to leave were police to sweep in and make arrests.
Police said a 14-year-old boy was injured in a shooting incident after a lone plain clothed officer was attacked by protesters. Hospital authorities said the boy was shot in the left thigh and is in a “critical condition.”
Police superintendent Yolanda Yu said she believed the shot in Yuen Long “was fired under the right circumstances.”
In an earlier statement, police said after the police officer was isolated by protesters, he “fell onto the ground and was beaten up by the group. Facing serious threat to his life, he fired one shot in self-defense. A rioter then threw a petrol bomb at him and his body was on fire.”
A video circulating online showed the officer, wearing a white t-shirt, getting up from the floor when a petrol bomb hits him and engulfs him in flames. The officer staggers forward and manages to extinguish the fire on his clothes, but appears severely dazed. He drops his weapon and it is almost grabbed by a protester before he lunges forward and manages to wrestle it away from them.
Speaking late Friday, Yang Guang, spokesman for the Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office of China’s State Council, the country’s top law-making body, said the current unrest “cannot be endless.”
“More effective measures to stop the violence and ease the unrest” must be used, Yang said, adding the central government supports the anti-mask law.
‘Serious public danger’
Use of colonial era emergency powers to institute the anti-mask law marks a significant escalation in the Hong Kong government’s handling of the now four-month long protests.
The new law bans people from wearing facial coverings that obscure their identity, including paint, at unauthorized or authorized protests, or public processions. Those found guilty face up to a year in prison and a HKD $25,000 ($3,100) fine.
On enacting the law on Friday, Chief Executive Carrie Lam said that the city was “now in a rather extensive and serious public danger.”
“It is essential for us to stop violence and restore calm to society as soon as possible,” she added. “We believe the new law will create a deterrent effect against masked protesters and rioters.”
No date has been set for when the mask law will be nullified, though Lam said it will be debated by the Legislative Council — where pro-government parties hold a majority — when they meet later this month.
While the actual long term effect of the mask law remains to be seen, critics said the true concern was that emergency powers had been used at all.
Jason Ng, convenor of the Progressive Lawyers Group, said the “most troubling aspect of the mask ban is the slippery slope argument.”
“This time it is a ban on masks, next time it can be a curfew or martial law,” he said. “The Emergency Regulations Ordinance grants extensive powers for the Chief Executive to pass measures on the vague grounds of ‘public emergency’ and ‘serious public disorder.’ These are not defined terms and can be interrupted broadly. Even more dangerously, there is no telling when these circumstances will cease to exist.”
The Civil Human Rights Front, whose marches have attracted hundreds of thousands of people, said the anti-mask law would “further suppress citizens and aggravate the contradiction between society and the political power, further pushing Hong Kong into the abyss.”
Speaking to CNN last week, a senior adviser to Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam — who spoke on background to be candid about government thinking — said they were concerned that any declaration of an emergency by the Hong Kong government could enable Beijing to intervene. The laws which cover the central government doing so are all structured around an emergency situation.
“Declaring an emergency would bring on so much opposition from everywhere, bring you a step closer to Beijing intervention,” the adviser told CNN. “If we ourselves declare there is a state of emergency we’re halfway there.”
Lam however, insisted Friday that Hong Kong was not under a state of emergency.
The current political crisis began after hundreds of thousands took to the streets to oppose a controversial bill that would have legalized extradition from Hong Kong to mainland China. Lam has promised to withdraw the bill once the city’s legislature resumes.
But the movement has snowballed into a grassroots, decentralized crusade for universal suffrage and independent inquiries into alleged police misconduct.
It has also grown increasingly violent, with protesters attacking police with petrol bombs and makeshift weapons, and the force responding with tear gas and water cannon. Fights have also broken out between protesters and counter-demonstrators and critical passersby, many of whom have been savagely beaten by the crowds.
Businesses with connections to the government or China have become a target in recent weeks with protesters targeting mainland Chinese businesses, public banners, flags and other symbols of China.