Wearing face masks for anti-epidemic purposes at a legal assembly may not be a reasonable defence against Hong Kong’s anti-mask law, a government advisor has said.

Friday’s comments by Executive Councillor and Senior Counsel Ronny Tong came after the police approved an application from the Hong Kong Women Workers’ Association to hold a march on Sunday.

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People wearing face masks in Central. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

The scheduled demonstration will start in Wan Chai and proceed to the government headquarters in Admiralty. It aims to promote labour rights, women’s rights and gender equality ahead of International Women’s Day next Wednesday.

The protest would be the first legal demonstration of its kind since the Covid-19 pandemic broke out over three years ago. The authorities previously cited Covid-19 health concerns to ban protests and rallies, including the city’s annual Tiananmen crackdown vigils in 2020 and 2021.

The government also imposed Covid-19 group gathering limits. At one point, no more than two people could gather in a group in public places.

Hong Kong was one of the world’s last regions to scrap its Covid-19 mask mandate, with the requirement lifted on Wednesday.

However, with mask-wearing no longer legally required, questions were raised over whether citizens would be arrested for wearing face coverings at lawful rallies, as Hong Kong’s 2019-era anti-mask law remains in place.

With the majority of Hongkongers opting to continue wearing masks, the police did not respond to HKFP’s questions as to whether participants of Sunday’s march would be allowed to wear them.

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An anti-mask law protest in 2019. File Photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

Under the anti-mask law, which was originally introduced to target the 2019 pro-democracy protests and unrest, offenders risk a year in jail and a fine of HK$25,000.

No one to blame

Citizens may attract suspicion and risk prosecution if they wear face masks while appearing in places where illegal acts are taking place, Tong told Commercial Radio: “Currently there are no medical purposes, because the government and experts all think that there is no need to wear facemasks as society is so safe.”

“They can blame no one,” said Tong.

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Ronny Tong. Photo: Lea Mok/HKFP

The senior advisor added that he believed courts would not accept health concerns as a reasonable defence for wearing facemasks during public assemblies.

Tong said that it was fine for citizens to wear face masks at restaurants and shopping malls: “However, when you are participating in protests or rallies, or are in the surrounding area, then you have to consider the level of risk of prosecution… I think citizens can judge for themselves, it is not that difficult.”

The mask ban was put in place by then-chief executive Carrie Lam in October 2019 using powers prescribed by the Emergency Regulations Ordinance. The prohibition barred the use of face coverings “likely to prevent identification” at lawful rallies, or illegal assemblies.

Chief Executive John Lee said on Tuesday that the mask mandate and mask ban were two separate matters, and the government will review the mask ban “in due course.”

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Candice is a reporter at Hong Kong Free Press. She previously worked as a researcher at a local think tank. She has a BSocSc in Politics and International Relations from the University of Manchester and a MSc in International Political Economy from London School of Economics.