Hong Kong face-off

Haitham Nouri , Thursday 10 Oct 2019

Hong Kong protesters are holding tight to their masks in the face of a government determined to quell escalating dissent, reports Haitham Nouri

Hong Kong face-off
Police detain a demonstrator during a protest in Hong Kong (photo: Reuters)

Hong Kong protests continue to disturb the city and tranquility doesn’t seem to be on the horizon anytime soon. On Saturday, the suspension of metro lines and public buses brought life to a halt in the semi-autonomous Chinese city which has become sleepless since Chief Executive Carrie Lam invoked colonial-era emergency law banning protesters from wearing masks on Friday afternoon in a bid to bring to an end four-month-long demonstrations.

Twenty-four legislators from the city’s parliament who are in support of the protesters filed a legal challenge “on constitutional grounds” Saturday against the law that went into effect on Friday at midnight and punished people wearing face masks with one year in prison.

The ban was made under Emergency Regulations Ordinance, which gives the city leader the power to formulate regulations “in the public interest” in an “emergency or public danger”. The law won the support of police and legislators loyal to China.

The Hong Kong demonstrations broke out in June when Lam presented a now-withdrawn bill that would have allowed extradition of criminal suspects to China.

The last time Hong Kong resorted to Emergency Regulations Ordinance was in 1967 as a result of the riots and bombings for which the left wing was responsible.

Lam said “we believe the regulation will have a deterrent effect against violent behaviour and help police officers carry out their duties” and track “extremist protesters”.

One of lawmakers in opposition to the law said Lam “acted in bad faith” by bypassing the Legislative Council, Hong Kong’s parliament, in invoking emergency law. On Friday, two activists failed to obtain a court injunction against the ban on face masks.

Lam stated she would seek parliament’s support during its coming session on 16 October to enforce stricter regulations if violence was to continue.

The ban was upheld by the High Court on Sunday.

Hong Kong rail operator MTR Corp said all services would be suspended Saturday due to “malicious vandalism”.  “As we are no longer in a position to provide safe and reliable service to passengers in the circumstances, the corporation had no choice but to make the decision to suspend the service of its entire network,” MTR said in a statement Saturday morning, adding that it needed to guarantee the safety of maintenance workers before they assessed the damage incurred.

On Sunday, public transportation lines partially resumed in the city regarded as a financial hub. Stores, malls and Chinese banks closed their doors, which became covered in graffiti. In some residential areas long lines of customers were seen in front of supermarkets as they attempted to buy food staples, such as eggs and rice, in large quantities for storage.

“The extreme acts of the rioters brought dark hours to Hong Kong last night and half-paralysed society today. Everyone is worried, anxious and even in fear,” Lam said Saturday, vowing to prevent further violence. “We cannot allow rioters any more to destroy our treasured Hong Kong,” she added.

Since Friday, police have resorted to water cannons and tear gas to disperse the crowds who grew in numbers Sunday. Police chased down saboteurs who vandalised metro stations, set fires on the streets and attacked stores with ties to mainland China.

Western media reports stated that protesters burnt a billboard celebrating the 70th anniversary of China’s communist rule.

The law Lam invoked was primarily in response to the wave of violence that broke out 1 October, the national day of the People’s Republic of China.

To commemorate the foundation of its Communist Party in 1949, China flexed its economic and military muscles, presenting a show in the capital with the participation of 15,000 Chinese soldiers.

On the same day, tens of thousands of Hong Kong citizens took to the streets to protest, using the China national day to make their voices heard.

Some observers believe that the activists in Hong Kong are sure that Beijing will not interfere militarily to quell the demonstrations in order not to repeat the 1989 scenario when the Chinese government quashed student protesters in Tiananmen Square.

Supporters of the Hong Kong protests accuse Beijing of violating the “one country, two systems” arrangement agreed upon with the UK in the late 1990s.

Nonetheless, China President Xi Jinping said during his speech on China’s national day that he promised to defend the country’s national unity which he described as strong as “iron and steel and the source of strength”.

China believes some Western powers that want to distract Beijing from performing its expected role were behind the protests that “clearly showed signs of terrorism”, as described by media close to the Chinese ruling party.

The UK occupied Hong Kong in the late 1800s before signing a leasing contract with China to use the city and its port for 99 years, which ended in 1997. When China took Hong Kong back, London and Beijing agreed to maintain the “democratic pattern” as is for 50 years, without the introduction of significant modifications.

Meanwhile, protests in Hong Kong are escalating and the demonstrators’ demands are widening. The protesters are demanding an investigation into police violence, Lam’s resignation and the amendment of the election law to allow for public voting on the seat of the city’s leader.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 10 October, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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