China Power | Security | East Asia

Hong Kong Wields Emergency Powers as Tensions Escalate

Hong Kong has grown increasingly polarized, with emotions running high on both the anti-government and pro-Beijing sides.

Eleanor Albert
Hong Kong Wields Emergency Powers as Tensions Escalate

Protesters stand in line to move supplies in Hong Kong, Sunday, Oct. 6, 2019.

Credit: AP Photo/Vincent Thian

Last week, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam announced the use of emergency powers, including a ban on face masks, punishable by up to one year in prison or a steep fine. The move comes as clashes between authorities and protesters are on the rise.

If the Hong Kong authorities thought a face mask ban would dissuade protesters from turning out over the weekend, they were mistaken. Even under heavy rain, thousands took to the streets in opposition, many defiantly donning masks. This week marked not only the 18th consecutive weekend of discontent but also coincided with the fifth anniversary of the Umbrella Movement protests in 2014. Protest groups filed an appeal to the imposition of emergency powers, but Hong Kong’s high court rejected the request for a temporary injunction on Sunday. 

The legal provisions that enabled Lam to exercise executive emergency powers date back to the city’s colonial era and have not been used in nearly 50 years. The ordinance has been invoked a number of times, including to quell strikes by a seamen’s union in the 1920s and leftist, pro-communist riots in the late 1960s. The Emergency Regulations Ordinance allows the chief executive to impose any measures necessary “in the public interest” on occasions of emergency or public danger. Such provisions could include censorship, arrests and detention, taking control of ports and the harbor, and restrictions on travel and transportation.  

In this latest wave of civil unrest, masks have been a common item for protection among protesters, most notably when facing off against tear gas canisters and to conceal identification from surveillance cameras. Hong Kong is reported to have tens of thousands of security cameras installed and has turned to “smart devices” and “smart lampposts” to gather data. Although Hong Kong authorities claim that any data collected is anonymized and complies with the territory’s privacy laws, opponents remain skeptical, especially as Beijing has begun to implement more and more uses of facial recognition software and monitoring techniques. Such surveillance technology has boosted Beijing’s coercive capacity and some in Hong Kong fear that as Beijing’s influence has encroached, so too might its policing tactics. 

On Monday, a member of a top government advisory body said that it would not rule out imposing internet controls in response to ongoing unrest. Authorities also asked secondary schools to report how many of their students are wearing face masks when classes resume on Tuesday.

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In addition to concerns over technology use, concerns over police presence and brutality remain high. The United Nations human rights chief Michelle Bachelet has called for an independent inquiry into the violence that has erupted at anti-government Hong Kong protests. In the past week, a journalist was permanently blinded in one eye by rubber bullets and two teenagers were shot by police. The escalating violence came as Beijing put on a high-profile celebration of its 70th anniversary. Separately, in an unprecedented move, soldiers stationed at the Hong Kong People’s Liberation Army garrison raised a yellow warning flag over the weekend that said protesters were acting in violation of the law and could be prosecuted. 

The city has grown increasingly polarized, with emotions running high on both the anti-government and pro-Beijing sides. A Mandarin-speaking banker was surrounded and then attacked after yelling “we are all Chinese;” the incident sparked outrage on the mainland. Also over the weekend, a taxi slowly drove among protesters before turning and accelerating into the crowd. Members of the crowd then turned on the driver and beat him up. 

Tensions between pro-Hong Kong and pro-Beijing groups are also intensifying abroad and online. Individuals are being targeted on social media and Lennon Walls in other parts of the world put up to demonstrate solidarity with Hong Kong have been torn down. 

Western firms may soon be put to the test. Young protesters have targeted, attacked, and graffitied Chinese banks and outlets of stores and businesses deemed pro-Beijing or anti-protest. Separately, a handful of Chinese companies chose to suspend their relationship with the NBA’s Houston Rockets franchise over a tweet sent by the team’s general manager. In a statement, the NBA expressed disappointment, acknowledging that Morey’s views “deeply offended” friends and fans in China.

We are likely to witness more politicization of international business dealings as unrest continues in Hong Kong. The Hong Kong government may also opt to use more extensive emergency powers as both protesters and pro-Beijing forces become more entrenched.