(Bloomberg) -- Hong Kong invoked emergency powers for the first time in more than half a century to ban face masks for protesters after months of unrest, prompting demonstrators to occupy downtown streets.
Chief Executive Carrie Lam said on Friday the move was necessary to stem increased violence in recent weeks, including attacks by protesters using petrol bombs, corrosive liquids and other weapons. The prohibition on face masks will deter violence and help police enforce the law, she said, adding that the measure didn’t mean Hong Kong was under a state of emergency.
As Lam spoke, protesters began gathering in Hong Kong’s Central district and occupying major boulevards. Shops closed early in anticipation that demonstrations would grow violent, similar to clashes between police and protesters in recent weeks.
“The violence is destroying Hong Kong,” Lam told reporters, flanked by 16 members of her cabinet. “We must save the present Hong Kong and the future Hong Kong.”
Lam called the situation “fluid” and said the government may consider additional measures if the situation worsened. She asked the international community to respond “in a comprehensive and impartial manner.”
“I don’t see how you could relate this to a step closer to authoritarianism,” Lam said in response to a question. “This is a responsible act to deal with an extremely difficult situation, which I hope the world has sympathy.”
The face mask has become a symbol of resistance among protesters who fear retribution if they are identified: China has applied pressure to businesses such as Cathay Pacific Airways Ltd. to fire employees who participate in demonstrations. The move comes shortly after a protester was shot on Oct. 1, as President Xi Jinping celebrated 70 years of Communist rule in Beijing.
Almost four months of protests have turned parts of Hong Kong into battle zones on weekends and holidays, wreaked havoc on the tourism industry and sent the $360 billion economy hurtling toward recession. Hong Kong stocks fell ahead of the briefing, before paring slightly as officials spoke. The Hang Seng Index slipped 1.1% to close below the key 26,000 point level.
The Civil Human Rights Front, which has organized some of the largest protests in the past few months, called the mask ban “dictatorship rule” and said “unspeakable consequences will follow.”
“This is like opening a Pandora’s box -- who knows what will come next after this ban?” said one man protesting in central Hong Kong on Friday afternoon, who only gave his surname Lau. “But the government should know that if it insists, and doesn’t listen to the people, we won’t give up and will keep the government accountable. We will continue our fight.”
The emergency law, first passed by the British government nearly a century ago to quell a seamen’s strike in Hong Kong’s harbor, was last used by the colonial administration to put down riots in 1967. Denounced by protest leaders, it could give the government greater leeway to arrest citizens, censor publications, shut off communications networks and search premises without warrants, among other measures.
“Put simply, if there’s no escalation of violence, we don’t need to come out with any new measures,” Lam said. “But if violence escalates, we need to maintain law and order in Hong Kong, we need to make sure that people can conduct their lives as usual.”
Hong Kong’s education department sent a letter to school directors and principals saying students, teaching staff and service providers should “lead by example” and avoid wearing face masks inside and outside of school premises, unless it’s for health or religious purposes.
Demonstrations erupted at 11 sites and shopping centers across the city as news broke of the face mask ban on Thursday, prompting police to fire tear gas in one location. More protests are planned for the weekend.
“I’m terrified of the possible backlash,” said Claudia Mo, a pro-democracy lawmaker in Hong Kong. “The young are saying they’re prepared to die for this cause. They’ll still be out there wearing their masks. And the police will charge at them.”
Hong Kong Security Secretary John Lee said similar legislation is on the books in the U.S., France, Germany, Spain and Canada, and that journalists would be exempted when they are on duty. In China, Hu Xijin, editor-in-chief of the Communist Party-backed Global Times newspaper, said in a tweet that Western countries shouldn’t apply “nasty double standards” when reacting to the ban.
The move risks fueling international condemnation of Lam’s government. Senator Elizabeth Warren, a frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination, called for the U.S. to stand up to China in Hong Kong. She also urged America to stop exports of police gear to the city and provide temporary protected status to its residents.
Demonstrators on Friday night said the mask ban wouldn’t deter them from hitting the streets.
“Protesters will still come out, no matter whether this law is being enforced or not,” said a 26-year-old worker in the insurance industry who only gave his surname Chan. “The anti-mask law only has one year, so the cost would be much less compared to other laws that we are violating.”
--With assistance from Melissa Cheok, Chua Baizhen, Chelsea Mes, Dominic Lau and Stephen Tan.
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