Hong Kong mask ban sparks violent clashes, rail shutdown

Imposed under emergency powers, the ban was aimed at quelling nearly four months of unrest


Afp October 05, 2019
A file photo of the Hong Kong protests (PHOTO: AFP)

HONG KONG: Hong Kong's mass transit rail system was suspended and dozens of banks and major shopping malls closed on Saturday after a ban on pro-democracy protesters wearing masks came into effect, sparking widespread anger and violent clashes.

The ban, imposed under emergency powers not used in more than half a century, was aimed at quelling nearly four months of unrest.

But instead, it triggered another wave of mass protests and vows of defiance, with a 14-year-old boy reportedly shot and wounded.

Spontaneous rallies broke out across Hong Kong after Chief Executive Carrie Lam announced the emergency law on Friday, with large crowds of office workers blocking roads in the heart of the Central commercial district.

Across the city demonstrators later vandalised subway stations, started street fires and trashed businesses with mainland China ties as police fired tear gas in multiple locations.

"The government doesn't listen to us. So we are upping our game," said 32-year-old protester Nathalie, as hardcore demonstrators trashed the MTR station in the previously calm neighbourhood of Tseung Kwan O.

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In the northern district of Yuen Long, a police officer opened fire when he was surrounded in his car and attacked by protesters, a petrol bomb exploding at his feet.

Police said the officer fired one round from his gun in self defence.

A teenage boy was shot and wounded in the same district, the South China Morning Post reported, citing a medical source. Police did not comment on whether the teenager was shot by the officer.

The entire subway network -- which carries some four million passengers a day -- was suspended, leaving protesters, locals and Friday night revellers stranded.

As the city awoke on Saturday, the rail network remained out of action -- including the crucial airport line -- with the rail operator saying it would assess damage to stations before deciding when to reopen.

Shopping malls were closed, supermarket chains said they would not open and many mainland Chinese banks, which were targeted in Friday night's violence, stayed shuttered, their facades sprayed with graffiti.

In some locations, long lines formed at supermarkets as residents stocked up, fearing further clashes.

Police sent text messages urging the public to avoid protests over the three day weekend.

But with the subway out of action, many posts on the social media forums used by protesters suggested making Saturday a "rest day", with plans to hit the streets again on Sunday and Monday.

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Hong Kong's protests were ignited by a now-scrapped plan to allow extraditions to the mainland, which fuelled fears of an erosion of liberties promised under "one country, two systems".

After Beijing and local leaders took a hard line, the demonstrations snowballed into a wider movement calling for more democratic freedoms and police accountability.

Lam has refused any major concessions but struggled to come up with any political solution that might end the chaos leaving police and demonstrators to fight increasingly violent battles as the city tips into recession.

While the increased vandalism has shocked many in a city unused to such scenes, many more moderate activists say they still have sympathy for those using violence.

The movement deploys many slogans advocating unity within the different camps pushing for democracy.

On Saturday afternoon a 67-year-old property agent, who gave his surname Luk, was surveying the damage to his local subway station, its windows shattered and walls daubed with graffiti.

He said he opposed vandalism but wouldn't condemn those trashing the station.

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"The government will not make any concessions," he told AFP. "The government isn't having a dialogue with citizens, they are just pushing this one-side behaviour."

A French resident, who gave his first name Marko, described the face mask ban as "adding oil to the fire".

"But I think the people who destroyed the stations are extremists," he added.

Pro-Beijing lawmakers and police praised Lam's ban.

Beijing also voiced support, calling it "extremely necessary".

"The current chaos in Hong Kong cannot continue indefinitely," Yang Guang, spokesman for the Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office of China's central government, said in a statement.

But critics said Lam's move was a major step towards authoritarianism for Hong Kong, which has been governed by China under a "one country, two systems" framework since British colonial rule ended in 1997.

The emergency power was last used by the British during riots in 1967 and it allows Lam to bypass the city's parliament to make "any regulation whatsoever" during an emergency or moment of public danger.

"She's like a queen now," said a 19-year-old student who identified himself only as JC.

Prominent democracy activist Joshua Wong said the law "marks the beginning of the end of Hong Kong".

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