The anti-mask law applies to both illegal and police-approved gatherings, and carries a penalty of up to a year in jail and a fine. (AP: Vincent Thian)
Shouting “wearing a mask is not a crime,” tens of thousands of protesters marched in central Hong Kong on Sunday (local time), as a court rejected a second attempt to block a ban on masks aimed at quashing violence at pro-democracy rallies.
- The High Court may hear an application at the end of October against the Hong Kong Government’s ban on masks
- Global luxury brands say retail sales were down 23 per cent in August, the biggest decline on record
- Hong Kong’s economy is on the brink of its first recession in a decade
The ban, which took effect on Saturday (local time), triggered chaos for a third straight day in the semi-autonomous Chinese territory.
Police fired tear gas in several areas as demonstrators lobbed bricks and gasoline bombs in confrontations that have become a regular occurrence during the four-month-old protest movement.
Lawmaker Dennis Kwok said the High Court refused to grant an injunction on the mask ban but agreed to hear later this month an application by 24 legislators against Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam’s use of emergency powers to impose the rule by circumventing the legislature.
Critics fear the use of the Emergency Regulations Ordinance that gives Ms Lam broad powers to implement any measures she deems necessary in an emergency could pave the way for more draconian moves.
The law was enacted by British colonial rulers in 1922 to quell a seamen’s strike and was last used in 1967 to crush riots.
Ms Lam has not ruled out further measures if violence continues.
“This emergency law is so ancient and draconian. Carrie Lam is using it as some sort of weapon of mass destruction to nuke Hong Kong,” legislator Claudia Mo said.
Even though the court rejected the legal challenge, Mr Kwok and Ms Mo welcomed the decision to expedite the hearing. The court didn’t set a hearing date but indicated it would be at the end of October.
“This is a constitutional case,” Ms Mo said.
“The court has acknowledged there is controversy involving the use of the emergency law.”
Ms Lam has said she would seek the backing of the legislature when it resumes on October 16.
Ms Mo called it a sham because she said only Ms Lam had the power to repeal the mask ban under the emergency law.
Hong Kong police were bracing for major protests on Sunday, fearing a recurrence of Friday night’s violent protests that saw the Asian financial centre virtually shut down on Saturday.
Only hours after Hong Kong’s embattled leader Ms Lam invoked the emergency powers, mask-wearing protesters took to the streets on Friday, setting subway stations on fire, smashing mainland China banks and clashing with police.
“The anti-mask law just fuels our anger and more will people come on to the street,” Lee, a university student wearing a blue mask, said on Sunday.
“We are not afraid of the new law, we will continue fighting. We will fight for righteousness. I put on the mask to tell the government that I’m not afraid of tyranny.”
Protesters on Sunday chanted “Hongkongers, revolt” and “fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong”.
Riot police monitored protesters from overhead walkways and footbridges, some taking photos and filming the marchers.
Police fired tear gas at one rally, but there was no obvious reason as the rally at Pacific Place on Hong Kong island seemed peaceful, said a witness.
Thousands of protesters braved the rain to march in central Hong Kong on Sunday. (AP: Vincent Yu)
Some roads clogged with protesters resembled a field of flowers, with thousands of colourful umbrellas. Protesters handed out face masks to encourage all Hongkongers to defy the ban.
The current “precarious situation”, which endangered public safety, left no timely solution but the anti-mask law, Matthew Cheung, Hong Kong’s chief secretary, wrote on his blog on Sunday. He urged people to oppose violence ahead of grassroots district council elections set for November 24.
‘Not God of Hong Kong’
Many protesters who wore masks on Sunday said the ban curtailed their freedom of expression.
The ban applies to both illegal and police-approved gatherings, and carries a penalty of up to a year in jail and a fine.
“Carrie Lam is not the god of Hong Kong. She can’t do anything she likes,” said retiree Patricia Anyeung, who wore a mask while marching with her sister, Rebecca.
“They can’t arrest us all. There are thousands of us. “There is no going back — we are at the point of no return.”
A protesters uses a cut paper bag as a mask in a march in Hong Kong on Sunday. (AP: Kin Cheung)
Ms Anyeung, who holds a British passport, said she may leave Hong Kong if the city’s freedoms were extinguished.
A police official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to speak to the media said some arrests were made Sunday for violating the ban, but he couldn’t give any numbers.
Enforcement proves tricky in a city where masks have often been used since a deadly respiratory disease outbreak in 2003.
The government said on Saturday that it wouldn’t prohibit the public from wearing masks for health reasons amid the current flu season.
Wearing a black mask and accompanied by his wife and two-year-old son, Feng Yiucheng handed out bottles of water to marchers from his van.
“I’m thinking of my kid’s future. For the sake of our freedom, there’s nothing we’re afraid of,” he said.
Many peaceful demonstrators say violence is the only way for young protesters to force the government to bend to clamours for greater democratic rights and other demands.
The shooting of a 14-year-old boy on Friday night — the second protest victim of police gunfire — stoked fears of more bloody confrontations.
An 18-year-old protester was shot at close range by a riot officer on Tuesday. He was charged with rioting and assaulting police, while the younger teen was arrested.
Ms Lam has said the ban on masks, which allows radical protesters to conceal their identity, was needed to stop widespread violence that has “semi-paralysed” Hong Kong.
Hong Kong’s four months of protests has plunged the Chinese-ruled city into its worst political crisis in decades and poses the biggest popular challenge to Chinese President Xi Jinping since he came to power six years ago.
The protests were sparked in early June by a bill that would have sent criminal suspects to stand trial in mainland China.
igvHong Kong leader Carrie Lam says she will seek the High Court’s backing of the legislature. (AP: Vincent Thian)
But what started as opposition to a now-withdrawn extradition bill has morphed into a pro-democracy movement against what is seen as Beijing’s increasing grip on the city, undermining its “one country, two systems” status promised when Britain handed Hong Kong back to China in 1997.
China dismisses the accusation, saying foreign governments, including Britain and the United States, have fanned anti-China sentiment.
Hong Kong on the brink of recession
Many malls, shops and the entire MTR network of subways and trains were shut Saturday following an overnight rampage.
About half of the city’s 94 subway stations reopened Sunday, but some quickly shut again after protesters vandalised stations, set street fires and thrashed shops and banks linked to China.
Many malls also remained shuttered as streets downtown turned into a sea of umbrellas. The rally disbanded after police deployed tear gas to break up violence and detained over a dozen young protesters.
Rail operator MTR Corp Ltd said it would not open some stations on Sunday, after an unprecedented shutdown following Friday night’s violence.
It said it needed time to repair vandalised facilities and would cut short operations on Sunday by more than three hours, to end at 9pm.
Most supermarkets and commercial stores reopened after the previous day’s closures, though some malls, such as Sogo in the bustling Causeway Bay commercial district and IFC in Central, remained shuttered.
Global luxury brands from Prada to Cartier are counting the costs as the unrest has kept tourists away, taking retail sales down 23 per cent in August, their biggest decline on record.
Many restaurants and small businesses have had to shut repeatedly, with the protests pushing Hong Kong’s economy to the brink of its first recession in a decade.
Financial Secretary Paul Chan in a blog on Sunday said despite recent obstacles, Hong Kong’s banking system remained sound and the financial market was functioning well.
Hong Kong may have lost as much as $4 billion in deposits to rival financial hub Singapore from June through August, Goldman Sachs estimated this week.
“Hong Kong will not implement foreign exchange controls. The Hong Kong dollar can be exchanged freely and capital can come in and out freely. This is the solemn guarantee of the Basic Law,” Mr Chan said.
Mr Chan’s comment came after Hong Kong’s Monetary Authority said about 5 per cent of the city’s ATMs could not transact cash withdrawals for “various reasons.”
Protesters have taken aim at some of China’s largest banks, trashing automated teller machines at branches of Bank of China’s Hong Kong unit, for example, while nearby international counterparts, such as Standard Chartered PLC, have escaped untouched.
The Hong Kong Association of Banks condemned violent acts “which have caused serious damage to some bank branches and ATMs”.