The Hong Kong government has invoked the Emergency Regulations Ordinance (ERO) to implement an anti-mask law to curb protests.

Update: New mask ban sparks wildcat protests in business district as malls close early

The law will ban protesters from covering their faces in full or partially during protests. Anyone who wears mask at lawful rallies and marches, unlawful or unauthorised assemblies, or at riots could be sentenced to a year in jail and a fine of HK$25,000. Exemptions include those wearing masks at protests for professional or paid work, or for religious or medical reasons.

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Additionally, the law states that anyone who disobeys a police order to remove a mask could be sentenced to six months in jail and a HK$10,000 fine. The definition of “facial covering” not only includes masks, but also items such as paint.

The legislation will be in effect starting from midnight on Friday. It came after a special meeting of the Executive Council on Friday, the de facto cabinet of Chief Executive Carrie Lam.

carrie lam
Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam has a drink as she speaks at a press conference in Hong Kong Photo: Mohd Rasfan/AFP.

“The decision to enact an anti-mask law is not easy one, but it is a necessary decision considering the situation today,” Lam said. “[Banning masks is] not an easy decision, but based on the current situation, it is a necessary one,” Lam said.

Hong Kong is “not in a state of emergency” despite the enactment of the law, she added.

When asked if the move was approved by Beijing, Lam claimed there was “no such thing as the Central People’s Government approval” for such a decision: “It is something handled within Hong Kong under ‘One Country, Two Systems,’” Lam said. She added that her trip to Beijing on October 1 was “very brief” and she had no interaction with Chinese officials on the mask ban.

Emergency powers

The ERO is a colonial-era law that gives the chief executive unlimited power in the event of an “emergency or public danger.” The ERO, introduced in 1922, has not been used since the 1967 leftist riots.

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Photo: May James/HKFP.

A government source told the pro-Beijing Sing Tao Daily that the government has expected that protesters would not obey the law, but it may have a deterring effect for some.

Hong Kong has seen over 17 weeks of protests sparked by the government’s soon-to-be-withdrawn extradition law. The sometimes violent demonstrations have evolved into wider calls for democracy, police accountability, amnesty for those arrested since June, as well as other community grievances.

The latest development came after the most violent day of protest Hong Kong has seen since the beginning of the movement, as police fired six live rounds on October 1. An 18-year-old student was shot in the left lung by one officer.. Since then, district-level protests have occurred nightly.

police fire Tsuen Wan
Fire at New Territories South Regional Police Headquarters, Tsuen Wan. Photo: Jimmy Lam @ USP United Social Press.

The new law banning masks has taken into account human rights concerns under Hong Kong law, which are not absolute and can be limited, said justice chief Teresa Cheng on Friday.

The legislation will not affect Hongkongers’ freedom of assembly, as they can still exercise their rights when not wearing masks, Cheng added.

Cheng said the law has “struck a balance” between Hongkongers’ rights and the need to help police enforce the law, therefore the restriction was a “proportionate” one under the law. The use of the ERO is not the same as Hong Kong entering a state of emergency, Lam said, noting that the name of the law has caused some confusion in society.

mask law hong kong
Photo: GovHK.

When asked if the government will ban police officers from wearing masks as well, Secretary for Security John Lee said officers must have suitable protective gear. “When police officers execute their duties… we have ways to identify them,” he said, addressing concerns that police are hiding their identity.

‘Draconian law’

The Civil Human Rights Front, an alliance of 50 NGOs which has acted as the organiser of recent mass marches, said the ERO was a draconian law from the colonial era.

china extradition protest mask
Photo: May James/HKFP.

“Once invoked, the Carrie Lam government would be declaring the death of ‘One Country, Two Systems’, and that Hong Kong is now a colony under Mainland Chinese rule. This old severe colonial law must be abandoned to keep the government in check and stop it from persecuting Hong Kong residents,” it said.

“If the anti-mask law, once applied, will threaten personal safety and the freedoms of expression and religion. The primary reason for wearing masks and industrial respirators is for protection from tear gas. It is also a political gesture. Without carefully examining practicalities, such laws would also impede religious practices that are under the protection of the Basic Law,” it added.

It said the Hong Kong police should be the first to stop wearing masks and show their identity, following incidents of them using “excessive and lethal force.”

It also said the government should respond to the public’s demands, and not further crackdown on protests.

Carrie Lam
Carrie Lam. File Photo: StandNews.

Activist Lester Shum and the “King of Judicial Review” Kwok Cheuk-kin said on Friday that they will file legal challenges against the anti-mask law.

Meanwhile, Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch, said: “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.”

“Chief Executive Carrie Lam needs to agree to an examination of excessive force by police and to resume the process toward universal suffrage. Additional restrictions are only likely to inflame tensions.”

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Kris Cheng is a Hong Kong journalist with an interest in local politics. His work has been featured in Washington Post, Public Radio International, Hong Kong Economic Times and others. He has a BSSc in Sociology from the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Kris is HKFP's Editorial Director.