HONG KONG — Further inflaming public outrage in this freedom-loving city, Chief Executive Carrie Lam just invoked emergency powers to impose a law banning the use of masks — or any kind of facial covering — at public meetings and processions. Protesters here have been relying on masks to protect themselves against the copious use of tear gas by police, and also to hide their identities from a government that has been increasingly criminalizing even peaceful forms of dissent.
At a press conference Friday, Lam said she is doing this because violence has been “destroying the city.” She hopes that by using emergency powers not invoked since the British colonial administration faced communist riots in the 1960s, she can restore “calmness.”
That’s highly unlikely. What’s actually destroying the great city of Hong Kong is the rule of Carrie Lam herself, or, to put it more accurately — since Lam is ever more clearly a puppet of Beijing — the Chinese Communist Party’s brutal methods of governance, which include using law not as an instrument of justice, but as a tool of repression.
For almost four months now, Hong Kongers have been demonstrating on a massive scale to save the rights and freedoms that China, in a treaty with Britain, promised they would enjoy for 50 years after the 1997 British handover. Hong Kong’s people have marched peacefully through the streets by the millions. They have held scores upon scores of protests, large and small. They have written an inspiring anthem about the fight for freedom, they have covered the city repeatedly in demands for freedom, they have delivered in stunningly clear terms the message that they want to freely elect their own leaders, and that they are not prepared to back down in the face of a China-backed local officialdom that has met them with threats, tear gas, water cannons, thuggery, and police beatings and brutality — escalating earlier this week, on China’s National Day, Oct. 1, to a policeman firing a live round point-blank into the chest of a teenage protester (now in critical condition).
Hong Kong’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, and her bosses in Beijing have responded with yet more threats, police brutality and blank refusal to honor China’s treaty promises for Hong Kong. The sole concession, if we should even call it that, has been Lam’s promise, after huge protests, to withdraw her proposed law that triggered these protests in the first place — a law that would have allowed extradition from Hong Kong to China.
But what the initial extradition-law threat highlighted for Hong Kong’s people was that unless they are able to elect their own leaders, they will be directly at the mercy of a Beijing-appointed chief executive, who will — a la Lam — serve Beijing’s imperatives of grinding away Hong Kong’s freedoms. As it is, Hong Kongers did not choose Carrie Lam as a leader, nor do they have any institutional way to get rid of her. Beijing calls the shots.
So, per Lam’s latest move in the name of “calm,” protesters here can now face criminal penalties of up to roughly $3,000 and a year’s imprisonment simply for wearing the masks they have used to defend themselves against tear gas and the possibility of arrest.
And, having invoked emergency powers, Lam is now in a position to do almost anything. As the New York Times sums it up: “Under the emergency powers, Mrs. Lam has a wide discretion to create new criminal laws and amend existing laws — all without going through the legislative process.” Newspapers can be censored or shuttered, web sites closed down, property seized, searches carried out galore, and so forth.
Such powers are enormously dangerous in the hands of a chief executive who clearly jumps to the tune of Beijing, and has shown no interest whatsoever in defending the rights and freedoms promised to Hong Kong.
We can all hope that against the odds and despite the monstrous record of Beijing and Lam’s administration to date, Hong Kongers will yet manage to save themselves and their freedoms from the grinding machine of China’s Communist Party rule. Allowing the rights and freedoms they have been demanding would almost certainly restore genuine calm to the city.
But given what we have just seen of Lam’s plan to try to restore calm by further stripping away what little protection Hong Kongers have left, it is time to brace for the terrible possibility of a bloodbath in Hong Kong — and it is very, very urgent that the leaders of the free world do everything in their power to persuade China’s President Xi Jinping, and his marionette, Ms. Lam, that anything of the kind would run deeply counter to China’s interests.