Hong Kong Citizens Encounter Tear Gas At Halloween Protests

Hong Kong protestors gathered Thursday night in a city-wide Halloween masquerade despite a recent ban on masks made by city leader Carrie Lam’s government. Protestors on Halloween night donned disfigured masks of unpopular politicians, including Carrie Lam as The Joker and Xi Jinping as Winnie the Pooh – an image banned in China after peopled compared President Xi’s appearance to the character. Built on colonial-era, emergency powers, the mask prohibition was issued earlier this month to forbid masks in public assemblies. Violations could result in up to a year in prison and a $25,000 HKD fine. While the ban was intended to reduce unrest in Hong Kong, it only seemed to exacerbate mounting protests. Resentment has grown in part over the military, who wear masks in the streets themselves.

In preparation for anticipated Halloween protests, the police closed numerous roads, erected water barricades and traffic safety equipment, and stationed thousands of riot officers on Hong Kong Island. Hong Kong Police reserved the right to remove masks if necessary; in a video, Hong Kong police affirmed: “It’s permissible to wear masks and makeup to celebrate Halloween […] however, under section 5 of the ‘Prohibition on Face Covering Regulation,’ police offers are empowered, if necessary to ask anyone in a public place to remove their face masks […] to verify their identity.” At approximately 7 pm in Lan Kwai Fong, officers clashed with protesters, and police ultimately claimed the gathering in the district was unlawful, ordering an immediate evacuation. Tear gas was deployed outside the Mong Kok police station and in Hong Kong’s business district.

Protestors chanted as they gathered for Halloween, “Free Hong Kong, revolution of our times!” One protestor expressed solidarity with those wearing masks, telling Al Jazeera, “Unless they give us freedom, we can’t take off our masks.” Police were prepared for possible escalation during the protests; superintendent Louis Lau told NPR, “Police do not rule out the possibility of any violent incident happening.” And while the occasion did contain holiday celebration, many took the opportunity to reiterate their demands laid out in the past five months’ continued protests. One protestor told al Jazeera, “Basically this is Hong Kong’s last stand […] We want government accountability. We want police accountability […] We have to keep on coming out until they listen. If we don’t […] there will never be a chance for us to come out again.”  Sophie Richardson, China Director for Human Rights Watch, wrote in August, “Hong Kong people have for decades – not just in recent weeks – been calling for their rights to be respected […] Hong Kong authorities should seriously consider these calls – and Beijing should not be standing in the way.”

The protests started in June after a proposal came forward allowing extradition with China. Since 1997 when Hong Kong gained independence from British rule, the region retained greater autonomy than its counterparts in mainland China, an arrangement known as “one country, two systems.” Hong Kong citizens retain more robust rights to free speech and assembly, and a separate judiciary and legal system. But the Basic Law, which prescribes these freedoms, will expire in 2047. Though the extradition bill was tabled after the protests commenced, the protestors are still asserting other demands: an independent investigation into police brutality, universal suffrage, amnesty for armed protestors, and protests to not be deemed a “riot.” Some protestors also seek the resignation of Carrie Lam, whom they view as too sympathetic with the Beijing government. President Xi has warned those who seek to separate Hong Kong from mainland China, noting such an attempt would result in “bodies smashed and bones ground to powder.”

Hong Kong’s economy has taken a deep plunge into recession since protests began, but it appears the protests will not subside until the Hong Kong government takes steps to negotiate with protestors and implement their demands. Assistance from international partners may be necessary in the peace-brokering process. Simultaneous impediments to peace and economic security, such as the ongoing trade war between the U.S. and China, must also be resolved – economic uncertainty and retaliatory tariffs only complicate Hong Kong’s economic situation. Furthermore, Hong Kong leadership must address issues of police violence, including its firearm use against civilians and tear gas to curb protests. International pressure to do so may be necessary should Hong Kong maintain somewhat feeble attempts at reconciliation.

Isabelle Aboaf