The Hong Kong government’s decision to invoke emergency legislation to ban face-masks in public places has paved the way for potentially draconian controls on every aspect of life and business in the city, commentators warned on Friday.
The administration of chief executive Carrie Lam announced it would ban people from covering up their faces in public assemblies from Oct. 5.
“As the current situation has clearly given rise to a state of serious public danger, the Chief Executive in Council decided at a special meeting this morning to invoke the power under the Emergency Regulations Ordinance and make a new regulation in the name of Prohibition on Face Covering Regulation,” Lam told a news conference.
“I would like to emphasize that the decision to invoke the Emergency Regulations Ordinance is a difficult but also a necessary one for public interest.”
Hong Kong’s emergency legislation, giving the government and police special powers in times of “serious public danger,” was brought in by the British colonial regime in response to a seaman’s strike in 1922.
It allows the chief executive and their cabinet, the Executive Council (ExCo), to make any regulations considered to be in the public interest, including the inspection and control of publications, maps, photos, and communications and communications methods.
Police can also be authorized to make arrests and detentions, deportations, to search and seize industrial goods and facilities, as well as implement controls and checks on goods under transportation, and to enter, search and confiscate private property.
Fears for internet freedom
The power to control communications has sparked concerns that the authorities could soon also move to limit internet freedom, imposing controls and blocks that are similar to the Great Firewall that limits what internet users can see in mainland China.
“Soon, LIHKG and Telegram could be blocked,” one poster on the LIHKG forum used by the protest movement wrote on Friday. “VPNs are the only hope we have, please purchase one when the tools are still available!”
Emergency legislation was last invoked during the 1967 communist-backed riots, with police using special powers to shut down leftist newspapers and schools, and arrest and deport many of the Beijing-backed movement’s leaders.
The leftists retaliated with a home-made bombing campaign that killed and injured hundreds of people including two children, and the burning alive of anti-leftist radio commentator Lam Bun.
University of Hong Kong law lecturer Eric Cheung said the mask ban had now set a precedent for further emergency measures to be ordered using the same legislation.
“Once the precedent is set, you are telling the whole world that you can now change the law at will in ExCo without the need to undergo any kind of process,” Cheung said. “It basically means that they can just announce a new law, any law, without putting it through a legislative process.”
“Now that the Emergency Regulations Ordinance has been used, all it takes is for the situation to get a little worse, and people will be taking their money out … then we’ll start seeing foreign exchange controls,” Cheung said.
Independent political commentator Camoes Tam said the mask ban, though not unusual in other countries, was the wrong way to address the problem facing Hong Kong.
“These problems are fundamentally political ones, and yet they think they can solve them using [legal] means like these,” Tam said. “They are trying to frighten people through legal and technical means into not coming out onto the streets.”
“The chief executive needs to get to grips with the political issues, and face them head-on,” he said.
Political commentator Hu Shaojiang said the use of emergency powers means that the ruling Chinese Communist Party is likely very concerned that the protests will spiral still further out of control.
“Beijing has been waiting for the Hong Kong government to adopt a tougher stance towards the protest movement for a long time now,” Hu said in a commentary broadcast on RFA’s Cantonese Service. “In their view, Lam is not nearly hardline enough and the measures she has been taking are not effective enough.”
Hu said Beijing hardliners have been calling on the Hong Kong authorities to use emergency powers for more than a month, very likely at Beijing’s instigation.
“We have been hearing more and more [pro-Beijing figures] voice criticism of Carrie Lam’s approach lately, which is an indication that Beijing is growing increasingly impatient,” he wrote.
Hu said that Hong Kong’s unelected leaders may have miscalculated in banning face masks.
“Totalitarian governments only know how to use force to suppress people,” he wrote. “They will never understand, and have lost public support. Now, they are seeking to control the public through force."
“Not only will this law become a laughing stock that isn’t worth the paper it is written on, it won’t help solve the current crisis in Hong Kong,” Hu said.
He warned that police brutality and social divisions could only worsen once emergency powers had been invoked.
Reported by Wong Lok-to for RFA’s Cantonese Service, and by Gao Feng and Xue Xiaoshan for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.