The fallout could well be ironical and bitterly so. Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam’s imposition of the ban on face masks in the embattled island nation signals the start of authoritarian rule. The latest development might only exacerbate the four-month upheaval of the people, one that has turned out to be more severe than the crippling Umbrella movement of 2014. Having placed the explosive extradition bill in abeyance ~ with no positive effect ~ she has now cracked the whip in a manner that has already ignited robust protests.
There is little doubt that the order was issued at the behest of China. Chiefly, the government of the island nation has invoked the Emergency Regulations Ordinance to pass a regulation forbidding the use of face masks. The decision has bypassed the legislature, which resumes its session in mid-October. Though officially designed to stop violence and restore calm, there have been immediate protests in its aftermath. Ms Lam had scarcely envisaged a weekend of escalating violence.
Indeed, Hong Kong has virtually been rendered out of joint ~ government employees were sent home early, schools were closed early on Friday and all school activities were cancelled on Saturday. Also closed were many shopping malls, banks and businesses. Almost immediate, therefore, has been the impact on the economy and education, benchmarks both of public policy. Thousands thronged on to the streets after Ms Lam made the announcement on Friday afternoon.
There were reports of arson at two metro stations; shops and businesses regarded as being pro-China were vandalised. Police fired a live round, hitting a 14-year-old boy in the thigh. It is pretty obvious that the counter-mobilisation by the people has been directed against both the Hong Kong establishment and President Xi Jinping’s China. The invocation of the emergency law signalled the start of authoritarian rule in the semi-autonomous city.
Since 1997, Hong Kong has had civil freedoms under China’s “one country, two system” policy. Although many of these freedoms have been eroded over the years, the fear that the emergency regulations could lead to the suppression of many fundamental rights is dangerously real on the 70th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China. The ordinance, promulgated by the colonial British government to break up port strikes in 1922, was last used in 1967 to quell pro- Communist riots.
It grants the city’s leader sweeping powers to “make any regulations” he or she may consider to be in the public interest. The Pandora’s box has opened. This law gives the government widespread power to do anything it likes. Reduced to irrelevance is the system of checks and balances, a constitutional certitude in normal circumstances. If indeed the suppression persists, there remains little or no scope for reconciliation.