Hong Kong government seeks ban on masks during protests

The Hong Kong government plans to invoke emergency powers to ban the use of masks during protests in a move that foreign diplomats and some politicians warned could hit the city’s economy.

Amid concerns that tensions are set to escalate sharply after the city’s months of demonstrations claimed their first shooting victim this week, Hong Kong’s leader Carrie Lam will put the proposal to ban masks to a cabinet meeting on Friday, two people familiar with the matter said on Thursday.

The move to invoke the colonial-era Emergency Regulations Ordinance was necessary to help end four months of violent protests in the Asian financial hub, “otherwise the only option to restore order is Chinese intervention”, said one of the people familiar with the matter.

The government and the office of Ms Lam, who has yet to publicly address concerns over this week’s unrest, did not return a request for comment.

Pressure is mounting from pro-Beijing groups and the police for the government to take a harder line on the protests after pro-democracy demonstrations to mark China’s national day on Tuesday descended into fierce street battles across Hong Kong.

Police fired on an 18-year-old student as he attacked them with a pole in an incident that overshadowed national day festivities in Beijing, where China’s President Xi Jinping held the country’s biggest military parade.

The injured student, Tsang Chi-kin, was charged on Thursday with rioting and assaulting an officer, crimes that carry up to 10 years and two years in prison respectively. He remains in a stable condition.

The proposed anti-mask law is aimed at stopping protesters from using surgical masks and other face covers to avoid being identified by police and surveillance cameras.

The person familiar with the matter said Ms Lam had held off invoking emergency powers because she feared this would harm the international image of Hong Kong, one of Asia’s premier capital-raising centres.

Diplomats warned that enacting the emergency laws could lead to a formal notice or warning from some countries on the precarious security situation in the city, which in turn would trigger evacuation plans for some international businesses.

Eric Cheung, a principal lecturer at the University of Hong Kong’s law school, said using the emergency law set a “very dangerous precedent as it bypasses normal legislative procedures”.

“It will seriously damage the status of Hong Kong as a financial centre and hurt investor confidence.”

While most people might think the anti-mask provisions would not relate to them directly, the invoking of the law could open the way for the use of some of its more draconian measures, Mr Cheung said. These include giving police greater power to arrest people and to control the media.

“They fear that once this path is open, what will happen next, and they won’t know whether it is still safe to keep their capital in Hong Kong,” he added.

Ronny Tong, a member of the Executive Council, Ms Lam’s cabinet, refused to comment on the possible implementation of the law.

But he said while the city could not lie to itself “that Hong Kong is still in a time of peace and prosperity”, invoking the emergency law might “affect the confidence of international investors in Hong Kong and it might make them feel that Hong Kong is in an emergency state”.

Hong Kong’s long summer of protests began with opposition to an extradition law — which Ms Lam has promised to withdraw — that would have allowed the government to send criminal suspects to China for trial.

The movement has since expanded to include calls for greater democratic rights and an independent inquiry into police brutality.

Hong Kong’s benchmark Hang Seng stock index reversed earlier losses to trade as much as 0.5 per cent higher immediately after reports that the anti-mask rule would be introduced emerged in local news outlets.

Additional reporting by Alice Woodhouse, Sue-Lin Wong, Primrose Riordan and Daniel Shane

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