Hong Kong Police: Sanitary Masks Making It Harder to Arrest Protesters

Protesters raise five demands gestures during a rally in Hong Kong, Sunday, Jan. 12, 2020. More than a thousand people attended a Sunday rally in Hong Kong to urge people and governments abroad to support the territory's pro-democracy movement and oppose China's ruling Communist Party. (AP Photo/Vincent Yu)
Vincent Yu/AP Photo

The Hong Kong Police Department complained in an update on criminal behavior in the city on Wednesday that an ordinance mandating the wearing of sanitary masks in public has made their work more difficult, placing law enforcement at odds with the local government.

Hong Kong police administrators pushed for a ban on wearing masks in public last year that resulted in a law making face coverings punishable with up to one year in prison last October. The situation in the city changed dramatically with a surge of Chinese coronavirus cases – fueled by lax enforcement of limitations on travel by people from China – in recent weeks, resulting in a mirror image law: not wearing a mask in public could result in a fine of up to $645. The Chinese-controlled Hong Kong government has not clarified how it will reconcile the two laws, so it is possible that both wearing a mask and not wearing a mask can result in legal sanction.

The Hong Kong police force, which has faced consistent international condemnation for brutality against pro-democracy protesters, published an update on the crime rate in the city throughout 2020, blaming the protests for an increase in crimes like assault, arson, and rioting. The statement claimed that Hong Kong saw a 217.9 percent spike in the first half of 2020 compared to the first half of 2019.

“The increase was attributable to crimes arising from ‘anti-extradition amendment bill’ related incidents,” the police department claimed, citing as their metric for how much crime the city experienced the number of arrests that they made, though many occurred during protests.

Protests erupted in Hong Kong last year in response to a proposed law that would have allowed the extradition of anyone present in Hong Kong to the communist Chinese legal system. While the Hong Kong Legislative Council (LegCo) ultimately did not pass the law, Beijing’s National People’s Congress (NPC) effectively enacted the same policy by passing a “national security law” that allows China to prosecute people in Hong Kong if considered a threat to the security of the Communist Party.

The police asserted that, despite the passage of the law, “the disobedience to law [sic] among some members of public [sic] is growing, economy is worsening and community-wide mask wearing has enabled criminals to conceal their identities more easily.”

These factors, the statement concluded, make it “difficult to restore the law and order situation to the level before the ‘anti-extradition amendment bill’ incidents within a short period of time.”

The local broadcaster RTHK noted the peculiar timing of police complaining that “community-wide mask wearing has enabled criminals to conceal their identities” – a day after it became illegal not to wear a mask in public. Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung announced on Monday that law enforcement would issue fines of up to 5,000 Hong Kong dollars ($645) to those found not wearing a mask, either indoors or outdoors, in the city, except for children under two years of age and those with medical problems that make it difficult for them to breathe with masks on.

“We are on the verge of a large-scale community outbreak, which may lead to a collapse of our hospital system and cost lives, especially of the elderly,” Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam said in remarks on Wednesday. “In order to protect our loved ones, our healthcare staff and Hong Kong, I appeal to you to follow strictly the social distancing measures and stay at home as far as possible.”

Despite their opposition to masks, police officers already appear to be violently enforcing the sanitary mask requirement in the city. On Wednesday, police confirmed that they had pepper-sprayed and violently assaulted a 55-year-old woman not wearing a mask. Officers claimed that the woman was “emotional” and needed to be physically subdued.

The sudden imposition of mandatory masks follows months of legal debate over the ban on wearing masks in public that took effect in November. That law made it illegal to cover ones face in public at all, not just with masks but with items like scarves and paint. The law exempted the use of medical masks in the process of conducting healthcare work and religious coverings such as niqabs. While a Hong Kong court of first resort ruled the law unenforceable, Hong Kong’s government won the case on appeal. The appellate court found that the emergency situation as a result of anti-communist protests in the city necessitated the extreme provision.

The anti-communist movement in the city embraced the return of the use of masks during the height of the Chinese coronavirus pandemic there, selling masks reading slogans like “not made in China.” Lam’s government jailed the dissidents who organized the sale of those masks – members of the pro-democracy group Demosisto, which disbanded to avoid prison in the aftermath of the passage of the “national security” law.

Hong Kong has documented a little over 3,000 Chinese coronavirus cases within its territory at press time; among those patients, 24 have died.

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