Hong Kong’s Emergency Mask Ban A Violation of Freedom

On 4 October 2019, Carrie Lam, Chief Executive of Hong Kong, announced an emergency ban on masks during public assemblies, which came into effect the following day. The ban was made possible under the Emergency Regulation Ordinance, a colonial-era law which grants the city’s leader power to create regulations in the public’s interest or during states of emergency. According to CNN, Lam announced at a press conference last Friday that the ban was a “necessary decision,” but that it didn’t mean that Hong Kong was in a state of emergency. During the government press hearing, CNBC was able to obtain a handout detailing the ban. According to the new ban, people are prohibited from wearing masks that cover their identity during the following circumstances: unauthorized assemblies, unlawful assemblies, and public meetings and processions that do not fall under a section of the Emergency Regulation Ordinance. The handout also revealed that police officers may now stop people and require them to remove their masks in order for the officer “to verify the identity of the person; and if the person fails to comply with requirements [the officer may] remove the facial covering. The ban has come in the wake of a protestor being shot by officers on the 1st of October. Following the announcement, protests erupted Friday night until dawn. According to a BBC article, the violent protests were spontaneous and resulted in blocked roads, torched Chinese flags, and businesses being vandalised. Hundreds of protestors wore masks that day in defiance of the ban.

Following the Friday night and early Saturday morning protests, the UN has called for a probe into the violence related to the protests. “We are troubled by the high levels of violence associated with some demonstrations… and also alarmed by the injuries to the police and protesters, including journalists and protesters shot by law enforcement officers,” Michelle Bachelet, the UN High Commissioner, told media outlets during a conference in Malaysia. She also let it be known that she condemns the violence on both sides and that demonstrations should be carried out in a peaceful way. Another prominent figure who has spoken about the civil unrest and the mask ban is Chris Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong. Of the face mask ban, Chris Patten said “She [Carrie Lam] would have to be crazy to be making these decisions on her own without being pressured into them. The face mask business, absolutely madness. I fear for the future, unless Carrie Lam actually intervenes and understands the importance of dialogue.” 

The face mask ban feels draconian, and in many ways violates the rights of the protestors. The fear felt by the protestors is very real and it is obviously not being considered by the Hong Kong government and especially not by China. China has a history of targeting advocates that voice opposition towards them, and it would be irresponsible to not take seriously the fear of protestors that they too will succumb to these oppressive tactics. Carrie Lam, as Chief Executive, acted very hastily and knew that a mask ban was a superficial response to the violence being seen on the streets of Hong Kong; a response that undoubtedly would have been met with severe pushback. Hong Kong is facing a precarious time and the government surely can’t continue to use oppressive tactics in order to silence protestors. That being said, the violence being seen on both sides is sidetracking from a compromise. It feels like a malicious cycle where violence from protestors is met with oppressive tactics from the government which leads to even more pushback that manifests into violence. Violence is never the answer and both sides need to come to a compromise. Carrie Lam needs to withdraw this ban and assure the people of Hong Kong that she is working in their best interest and not that of China. Even with the extradition bill that first ignited this issue being withdrawn, protests still continue and Lam’s government needs to come out and say that they will talk with protestors to come to a compromise. The issue has escalated and the leaders of the protest also need to come out and condone the violence being seen. The violence is negatively affecting their very real concerns, and is not the correct approach. In order for the dust to settle, both sides have to acknowledge that some of their own actions caused the violence being seen, and this a crucial step that needs to be taken before anyone is ready to sit down and reach a compromise. 

The spark in this whole issue was an extradition bill introduced by the government that would allow people in Hong Kong to be extradited to mainland China to await trial. The bill was obviously met with concern by the people of Hong Kong and critics alike that it would continue to erode the independence the city had during their time as a British colony. China itself has a deeply flawed justice system, so this surely did not sit well with people. 

Even with the manifestation of violence, the main issue in Hong Kong should not be ignored abroad. These people are fighting for their freedom and rights, even if it means becoming targets in potentially dangerous situations. The issues being seen in Hong Kong put people in a vulnerable state, because China will undoubtedly take advantage of that and push to have more control in the city, suppressing the protestors’ independence.