Hong Kong’s embattled leader Carrie Lam invoked colonial-era emergency powers last used more than 50 years ago on Friday, in a dramatic move that enraged protesters who took to the streets of the Chinese-ruled city within hours.
Lam, speaking at a news conference, said a ban on face masks would take effect on Saturday under the emergency laws that allow authorities to “make any regulations whatsoever” in whatever they deem to be in the public interest.
China’s Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office praised the move in a statement that said the protests were evolving into a “colour revolution”, a term coined to refer to popular uprisings in Ukraine and other former Soviet states that swept away long-standing rulers, with interference from external forces.
The emergency laws allow curfews, censorship of the media, and control of harbours, ports and transport, although Lam did not specify any particular action that might follow beyond the mask ban.
Nearly four months of anti-government protests have plunged Hong Kong into its biggest political crisis since its handover from Britain to China in 1997 under a “one country, two systems” formula that granted it autonomy and broad freedoms not enjoyed on the mainland.
Lam said her move was necessary to quell escalating violence.
But as darkness fell, defiant demonstrators took to the streets to vent their anger, vandalising what they perceived to be China-friendly businesses and blocking road in the heart of the financial centre. Police fired tear gas to disperse protesters in flashpoint districts across the territory, including Causeway Bay, Sha Tin and Wong Tai Sin.
Shopping malls, banks and shops across Hong Kong island had closed early in anticipation of violence as some protesters burned Chinese flags and chanted “You burn with us”, and “Hong Kongers, revolt”.
“The anti-mask law has become a tool of tyranny,” said Samuel Yeung, an 18-year-old university student, as crowds swelled in the main financial district of Central, beneath gleaming skyscrapers that house the Asia headquarters of companies including HSBC.
“They can make use of the emergency law to enact any policies or laws that the government wants. There’s no rule of law anymore. We can only be united and protest.”
What began as opposition to a proposed extradition law, which could have seen people sent for trial in mainland courts, has grown into a broad pro-democracy movement and a serious challenge to Chinese leader Xi Jinping.
The protesters are angry about what they see as creeping interference by Beijing in their city’s affairs. China dismisses accusations it is meddling and has accused foreign governments, including the United States and Britain, of stirring up anti-China sentiment.
On Friday evening, thousands of demonstrators – many blue-collar workers and unmasked residents – gathered across the territory, filling shopping malls and blocking roads. Bus routes were suspended and rail operator MTR closed stations.
Many protesters wear masks to hide their identity due to fears employers could face pressure to take action against them.
“Almost all protesters wear masks, with the intention of hiding their identity. That’s why they have become more unbridled,” said Lam.
“We can’t keep the existing regulations idle and let violence escalate and the situation continue to deteriorate.”
Lam described the territory as being in serious danger, but not in a state of emergency.
Pro-Beijing groups had been pushing for a mask ban, but it was not clear how the government would implement it in a city where many of its 7.4 million residents wear them every day to protect against infection following the outbreak of the deadly Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in 2003.
Police can stop anyone in public and ask them to remove a mask if the officer believes it may prevent identification, according to the law. Exceptions are made if the person wearing a mask can prove they need it for medical, religious or professional reasons.
Offenders face a maximum fine of HK$25,000 ($3,200) and imprisonment for a year, according to details of the prohibition published by the government.
Authorities had already loosened guidelines on the use of force by police, according to documents seen by Reuters.
That came just before an escalation in violence on Tuesday, the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China, when police fired about 1,800 volleys of tear gas, 900 rubber bullets and six live bullets – one of which hit an 18-year-old, the first time a protester had been hit be live fire.
The student, Tony Tsang, was shot at close range as he fought with a policeman. He is stable in hospital and has been charged with rioting, which carries a maximum 10-year sentence, and assaulting an officer.
Pro-democracy campaigners condemned Lam’s latest decision.
“This is an ancient, colonial set of regulations, and you don’t use them unless you can’t legislate anymore,” said Martin Lee, a veteran activist and one of the city’s most prominent lawyers. “Once you start, there’s no end to it.”
The U.N. human rights office said Hong Kong must protect the right to freedom of assembly and Britain urged its former colony not to aggravate tension.
Some Hong Kong’s businesses, struggling with a dip in tourism and retail sales due to the protests, gave the law a warmer welcome.
“I agree with it at this point,” said businessman Allan Zeman, who is also an economic adviser to Lam. “You have to do something drastic to end the violence.”
But Hong Kong shares fell on Friday, hitting one-month lows.