27 January 2020
Carrie Lam has left open the possibility of invoking emergency powers to deal with Hong Kong's current unrest, but not many are convinced about the merits of such action. Photo: Reuters
Carrie Lam has left open the possibility of invoking emergency powers to deal with Hong Kong's current unrest, but not many are convinced about the merits of such action. Photo: Reuters

Skepticism abounds on emergency law even within the govt

During a media session on Tuesday prior to an Executive Council meeting, Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor didn’t rule out the possibility of invoking emergency powers in order to quell the ongoing unrest in Hong Kong.

She said the government has a duty to put an end to the violence and chaos as soon as possible, exploring all available means under the law.

Her remarks fuelled speculation that the government was taking a serious look at the Emergency Regulations Ordinance as a way to cope with the escalating anti-government protests.

While we can’t dismiss such talk, there is however plenty of skepticism among the political circles as to whether invoking the colonial-era law can really bring back the situation to normal.

As a matter of fact, many people feel any such drastic move will backfire and only exacerbate the turmoil, rather than end it.

And even a figure within the government, one of our sources, seems to agree.

The Emergency Regulations Ordinance, which was passed back in 1922 as a means to crack down on the seamen’s strike that took place in that year, has been viewed as a legal weapon of “mass destruction”.

The government source says he doubts whether invoking the law to quell social unrest would work in a modern-day situation.

For example, under the law, the government can gain the power to shut down the internet and the telecommunication network in the city. That would enable authorities to deny people access to online platforms such as LIHKG and the highly encrypted messaging app Telegram, which have been widely used by the anti-extradition movement protesters in the past two months to build support for their campaign.

Nevertheless, the government figure pointed out that if the administration does indeed resort to such measures, they may be able to block communication among protesters for a few days, but not for long as the activists will surely find an alternative means of communication.

Any heavy-handed measure will only have a short-term effect, and won’t really yield the desired results, the person said.

By declaring an emergency, authorities will have the power to enforce a ban on mass demonstrations and rallies in the city.

But it is doubtful if such a ban will stop people from taking to the streets, the government source said, pointing to the recent incidents when a large number of citizens staged marches in various districts despite denial of permission by the police.

Besides, although the emergency law will enable the authorities to carry out large-scale arrests and detention of protesters, the problem is that the police simply won’t have the manpower to round up all the demonstrators given their sheer number.

Apart from this, the government figure raised another key question: Has the situation in Hong Kong become really so bad that the administration has no choice but to invoke the emergency ordinance, which would virtually amount to martial law?

Democratic Party lawmaker James To Kun-sun has told us that he has learnt from sources that President Xi Jinping has laid down a “three-point” directive to the Hong Kong government on resolving the current crisis — do it in a “down-to-earth” fashion, do it “in Hong Kong way” and adopt effective means.

Also, he told us that Xi would like “the person who has created this trouble” to clean up the mess on her own.

As To has put it, invoking the emergency law by the Hong Kong government at a time when the Sino-US trade war is escalating will only create additional problems for Beijing.

Another government source says that if the administration does indeed decide to invoke the emergency law, it is likely that authorities would take things somewhat easy at first, and then, depending on the situation, gradually tighten the grip.

But the problem is, no matter how gingerly the government proceeds with it, invoking the Emergency Regulations Ordinance will be tantamount to telling the rest of the world that Hong Kong is no longer a safe place.

That would only make things worse for the government as well as society.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Aug 29

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

– Contact us at [email protected]


Columnist of Hong Kong Economic Journal.