Hong Kong leader invokes emergency powers to quell escalating violence
HONG KONG – Hong Kong’s embattled leader Carrie Lam invoked colonial-era emergency powers on Friday for the first time in more than 50 years in a dramatic move intended to quell escalating violence in the Chinese-ruled city.
Lam, speaking at a news conference, said a ban on face masks would take effect on Saturday under the emergency laws that allow authorities to “make any regulations whatsoever” in whatever they deem to be in the public interest.
Many protesters wear masks to hide their identity due to fears employers could face pressure to take action against them.
“Almost all protesters wear masks, with the intention of hiding their identity. That’s why they have become more unbridled,” said Lam.
“We can’t keep the existing regulations idle and let violence escalate and the situation continue to deteriorate.”
Lam described the territory as being in serious danger, but not in a state of emergency.
It was not clear how the government would implement the mask ban in a city where many of its 7.4 million residents wear them every day to protect against infection following the outbreak of the deadly Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in 2003.
Four months of anti-government protests have plunged the former British colony into its biggest political crisis since its handover to Beijing in 1997 under a “one country, two systems” formula granting it autonomy.
The turmoil is also a serious challenge to Chinese leader Xi Jinping.
There is no guarantee the emergency law will defuse tension, and it may only inflame protesters further. More rallies are expected later in the evening and over the weekend.
“This is the next significant miscalculation,” said Phill Hynes, head of political risk and analysis at ISS Risk, shortly before the widely expected introduction of the emergency laws.
“The next will be barring certain candidates from running in District Council elections. Both will nicely inflame tensions and increase protests and actions.”
Pro-democracy campaigners condemned Lam’s decision.
“This is an ancient, colonial set of regulations, and you don’t use them unless you can’t legislate anymore,” said Martin Lee, a veteran activist and one of the city’s most prominent lawyers. “Once you start, there’s no end to it.”
Hong Kong’s business interests, struggling with a dip in tourism and retail sales due to the protests, gave the law a warmer welcome.
“I agree with it at this point,” said businessman Allan Zeman, who is also an economic adviser to Lam. “You have to do something drastic to end the violence. A lot of people will think twice about coming out.”
While invoking emergency powers, authorities have also loosened guidelines on the use of force by police, according to documents seen by Reuters.
Violence escalated on Tuesday, the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China, when police fired about 1,800 volleys of tear gas, 900 rubber bullets and six live bullets – one of which hit an 18-year-old.
The student, Tony Tsang, was shot at close range as he fought an officer with what appeared to be a white pole. He has been charged with rioting, which carries a maximum 10-year sentence, and assaulting an officer. Tsang is in stable condition in hospital.
The shooting enraged protesters who rampaged across the city, throwing petrol bombs, blocking roads and starting fires as police responded with tear gas.
Even before the new rules were confirmed, protests against them began across the Asian financial hub, with hundreds of office workers wearing masks gathering to march.
“Police brutality is becoming more serious and the set up of an anti-mask law is to threaten us from protesting,” said one protester, who asked to be identified as just Chan, a 27-year-old financial industry worker.
Pro-Beijing groups had been pushing for legislation to ban face masks at demonstrations.
The protesters are angry about what they see as creeping interference by Beijing in their city’s affairs despite a promise of autonomy under the “one country, two systems” formula.
China dismisses accusations it is meddling and has accused foreign governments, including the United States and Britain, of stirring up anti-China sentiment.
What began as opposition to a proposed extradition law, that could have seen people sent for trial in mainland courts, has grown into a call for five demands, including universal suffrage and an inquiry into alleged police brutality.
(Content & Photos Syndicated Via Reuters)
(Reporting by Clare Jim and Noah Sin; Additional reporting by Twinnie Siu, Donny Kwok, James Pomfret, Jessie Pang, Felix Tam and Farah Master; Writing by Anne Marie Roantree and Bill Rigby; Editing by Robert Birsel)