HONG KONG — Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam on Friday invoked rarely used and sweeping emergency powers to ban face masks at demonstrations, a move that sought to quell pro-democracy protests — but which quickly had the opposite effect of intensifying anger on the streets.
Lam’s decision to use colonial-era security powers further enflamed tensions roiling since June and heightened fears that Hong Kong’s basic freedoms were being eroded. The order effectively expands police powers of arrest, even as many in Hong Kong fear the department is operating with impunity in its growing use of force.
It could also risk tainting Hong Kong’s hard-won reputation as an open financial hub, already under strain because of the upheaval of recent months.
“Protesters’ violence has been escalating and has reached a very alarming level in the past few days, causing numerous injuries and leading Hong Kong to a chaotic and panicked situation,” Lam said in a news conference. Behind her, a banner read: “Treasure Hong Kong, End Violence.”
“As a responsible government, we have the duty to use all available means to stop the escalating violence and restore calm in society,” she said.
Lam added that while the emergency ordinance is being enacted to ban the masks, Hong Kong itself was not in a state of emergency.
Instead, she described it “an occasion of serious danger” that required emergency laws.
The ban will take effect from Saturday. It will apply to rallies that have been given a go-ahead by police, as well as those that are unauthorized. The law authorizes a police officer to order the removal of facial coverings and take them off forcefully if the person does not comply. Noncompliance would be punishable by a fine or a jail term of up to a year.
Critics were quick to reject the measure and the use of emergency laws. And even authorities seemed to be acknowledging that their move would not stop unrest. Some government workers were dismissed early Friday, and schools were told to cancel extracurricular activities in anticipation of protests.
In central Hong Kong, thousands of protesters filled the streets at lunchtime in a demonstration that stretched into the evening after work hours. The protesters — some in heels or suits — left high-rise offices to join the march. Almost everyone wore masks.
Protests spread to the city’s financial district, indicating the depth of dissent. Residents in middle-class neighborhoods heckled police.
“This is adding fuel to the fire,” Fernando Cheung, a pro-democracy lawmaker, said of the mask ban. “People are already extremely angry at the police and the government for not responding to their demands.” He added: “The result is clear. This will mark the beginning of riots in Hong Kong.”
Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch, added: “Hong Kong authorities should be working to create a political environment in which protesters do not feel the need for masks — not banning the masks, and deepening restrictions on freedom of expression.”
Lam’s announcement came three days after widespread demonstrations across Hong Kong on Tuesday, the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China — rallies that degenerated into street battles between protesters and police. Police fired at protesters multiple times, using live ammunition for the first time since the demonstrations erupted in June.
One protester was shot by an officer at close range in the chest after a group of protesters attacked police. The incident sparked even more demonstrations this week. The 18-year-old student, who remains hospitalized, was charged Thursday with rioting and assaulting a police officer. Police have said the shooting was justified.
Protests began over a bill to allow extraditions to mainland China that many feared would erode the city’s freedoms and the independence of its reputable legal system. They have since swelled into an all-out rebuke of Hong Kong’s political system, in which leaders are handpicked by and answerable to Beijing.
Demonstrators are pushing five demands, including an independent investigation of the police, but the government has responded only to one, the full withdrawal of the extradition bill.
The mask ban was pushed by a more hardcore group of Beijing loyalists within Lam’s government, who have accused her of being too soft on the unrest roiling the city.
“The anti-mask law is aimed at stopping violence. I think it will work even though it is painful to the society,” said Elizabeth Quat, a lawmaker with the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress, a pro-Beijing party.
On one major thoroughfare, protesters marched down a four-lane road shouting chants such as: “Fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong!” and “Liberate Hong Kong, Revolution of our times!” The march brought traffic to a halt, but some drivers stuck in the jam held up five fingers — a symbol of the five demands of protesters — outside the windows of their luxury sedans, beeping their horns in a show of support.
Penny, 35, who said he had worked in finance for 10 years, challenged police to use force against workers like him marching in the city center.
“If the police dare to shoot us in Central during midday, come on and do it. Don’t be a coward,” he said, using only his first name for fear of retribution. “If Carrie Lam wants a police state, that is fine. We are not afraid.”
Others expressed fears that Lam’s move was only the beginning of what would be an increasingly repressive crackdown on dissent. Lam has said repeatedly that a solution to the political crisis can be reached through dialogue. She held a community listening session last month, but the move has failed to win her any support.
“This is only the first step. In the coming weeks and months, [the government] will continue to use more force to push protesters not to voice any opposition,” said Justin, 27, a corporate finance worker who gave only his first name. He wore a respirator, yellow construction helmet and goggles with tailored dress pants, a slim-fitting shirt and a skinny gray tie as he marched.
Separately on Friday, the Education Bureau sent a letter to schools telling them to warn students not to wear masks inside or outside school, other than for religious or health purposes. “Schools are not a place to express your political views,” the letter said.
Students have been a major force in the recent protests, forming a large share of the more than 2,000 people arrested in street demonstrations. They have also organized class boycotts and other shows of solidarity inside the classroom.
The emergency powers, which date back to 1922 when Hong Kong was under British colonial rule, allow authorities to censor the press, seize property, take control of all transportation, manufacturing and trade in the city and detain people for lengthy periods.
Already, activists are planning challenges in court to the new law.
Some legal experts believe the emergency powers are not in line with Hong Kong’s Basic Law, which grants the city its cherished freedoms, including the right to assembly.
Eric Cheung, a principal lecturer at the University of Hong Kong Faculty of Law, said the use of the emergency ordinance to enact the law was alarming.
“It sets a very bad and dangerous precedent in bypassing all of the normal legislative processes. It means you can now pass a law without any consultation, without any debate, without any public participation or voting by the Legislative Council,” he said.
He added that the move is “very, very damaging to Hong Kong” and “changes the whole legal landscape.”
Lam did not rule out enacting other regulations to curb protests, including putting a curfew into place.
Ronny Tong, a member of Hong Kong’s executive council and a legal adviser to Lam, said the decision was made because “something had to be done” after the Oct. 1 shooting.
“There’s lots of limitations all round, in terms of the kinds of decisions that the Hong Kong government can make. We just have to cross our fingers and hope that this decision can work,” he said. “This is not being done with ill-will, it is being done with the best interests of Hong Kong at heart.”
Tiffany Liang contributed to this report.