Critics say the move is a major step towards authoritarianism for Hong Kong. (Reuters: Athit Perawongmetha)
Violence has erupted across Hong Kong as defiant masked protesters rampaged and police fired tear gas, hours after the city’s embattled leader invoked rarely used emergency powers to ban masks at rallies in a hardening of her stance after four months of anti-government demonstrations.
- Hong Kong protesters have reacted angrily to a ban on masks
- Many protesters use masks to shield their identity and protect against tear gas
- Pro-democracy campaigners say the move is a step towards authoritarianism
Chief executive Carrie Lam said she had made the order under the Emergency Regulations Ordinances, a sweeping provision that grants her the ability to bypass the legislature and make any law during a time of emergency or public danger.
“We believe that the new law will create a deterrent effect against masked violent protesters and rioters, and will assist the police in its law enforcement,” Ms Lam said.
Online forums used by protesters also filled with anger and vows to hit the streets over the upcoming three-day weekend.
As darkness fell, defiant demonstrators took to the streets to vent their anger, vandalising what they perceived to be China-friendly businesses and blocking road in the heart of the financial centre.
The largest impromptu rally on Friday broke out in Central, where many blue-chip international firms are based, as protesters used plastic barriers, wooden pallets and traffic cones to set up makeshift blockades.
Ms Lam has hardened her stance after four months of anti-government demonstrations. (AP: Felipe Dana)
Police fired tear gas to disperse protesters in flashpoint districts across the territory, including Causeway Bay, Sha Tin and Wong Tai Sin.
Local media reported that a young man was shot in the leg by an off-duty police officer, who was then beaten by protesters and showered with Molotov cocktails.
Shopping malls, banks and shops across Hong Kong island had closed early in anticipation of violence as some protesters burned Chinese flags and chanted “You burn with us”, and “Hong Kongers, revolt”.
“Youngsters are risking their lives, they don’t mind being jailed for 10 years, so wearing masks is not a problem,” said a 34-year-old office worker wearing a surgical mask, who gave her first name as Mary.
Critics said the use of the emergency law was a major step towards authoritarianism for Hong Kong, which has been governed by China under a “one country, two systems” framework since British colonial rule ended in 1997.
“This is a watershed … I’m worried this could be just a starter,” pro-democracy politician Claudia Mo said.
“More draconian bans in the name of law could be lurking around the corner.”
Prominent democracy activist Joshua Wong said the law “marks the beginning of the end of Hong Kong”.
“It is ironic that a colonial-era weapon is being used by the Hong Kong Government and the Chinese Communist Party,” he said.
The last time the law was invoked was during the 1967 riots — a period where more than 50 people were killed in a year-long leftist bombing and murder spree.
The emergency laws allow curfews, censorship of the media and control of harbours, ports and transport, although Ms Lam did not specify any particular action that might follow beyond the mask ban.
Guy Fawkes masks have come to represent anti-government protests around the world. (AP: Vincent Yu)
China’s Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office praised the move in a statement that said the protests were evolving into a “colour revolution”, a term coined to refer to popular uprisings in Ukraine and other former Soviet states that swept away long-standing rulers, with interference from external forces.
“The anti-mask law has become a tool of tyranny,” Samuel Yeung, an 18-year-old university student, said.
“They can make use of the emergency law to enact any policies or laws that the Government wants. There’s no rule of law anymore. We can only be united and protest.”
Face masks have become a hallmark of protesters in Hong Kong, even at peaceful marches, amid fears of retribution at work or of being denied access to schooling, public housing and other government-funded services.
Some young protesters also wear full gas masks and goggles to protect against police tear gas.
Many also are concerned their identities could be shared with the massive state-security apparatus that helps keep the Communist Party in power across the border in mainland China, where high-tech surveillance including facial recognition technology is ubiquitous.
Nearly four months of anti-government protests have plunged Hong Kong into its biggest political crisis since its handover from Britain to China in 1997 under a “one country, two systems” formula that granted it autonomy and broad freedoms not enjoyed on the mainland.
Protesters crammed streets in the central business district shouting “Hong Kong people, resist.” (AP: Vincent Thian)