The government’s decision to invoke the Emergency Regulations Ordinance to ban the wearing of face masks during public assemblies provoked a huge public backlash over the weekend, with serious clashes between the police and protesters erupting across the city.
Just as the pan-democrats are deeply concerned about the prospect of the government further tightening its grip on civil liberties with the emergency law, Executive Council member Ip Kwok-him on Monday suggested that the government, using its powers under the emergency law, could restrict the means of communication in the city if the anti-government protests continued unabated.
Ip’s remarks have been widely interpreted as an intention by the SAR government to restrict websites and smartphone messaging apps that protesters use to communicate with each other – in short, a ban on the internet.
However, as a government figure has pointed out, it is extremely difficult to enforce an internet shutdown in the city from the technical point of view.
Besides, the source said, since the anti-mask law has only come into effect for several days, the government is still observing whether it has any effect at all in discouraging unlawful acts by the protesters.
As such, the source doesn’t expect the authorities to invoke the emergency law again in the short run.
Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, speaking to reporters before the regular Executive Council meeting on Tuesday, said it is “too early to say that the anti-mask law is not effective”, adding that, for any new policy or legislation, it would “take time for it to be effectively implemented”.
She also said the government currently has no plans to invoke the emergency law again to make new laws.
Nevertheless, it appears that the patience of some hardline pro-establishment figures is already wearing thin, with some of them beginning to criticize that the face mask ban alone is not sufficient to end the violence.
Some local deputies to the National People’s Congress have even called on the government to adopt tougher measures under the existing Public Order Ordinance, including imposing curfews.
Yet another figure within the administration has suggested otherwise, stating that the anti-mask law is already a very tough measure adopted by the government after serious deliberations.
So at the moment, the government is trying to wait and see how things are going to unfold as far as the mask ban is concerned.
According to the government figure, the next political watershed is likely to be on Oct. 16, when the chief executive is expected to deliver her policy address before the Legislative Council.
The administration would not adopt tougher measures before that date unless the situation in the city deteriorates rapidly, the source said.
Therefore, the possibility of the authorities imposing curfews as proposed by some pro-establishment politicians is extremely remote.
Besides, imposing a citywide curfew will not only draw international criticism but will also likely be difficult to enforce, the source added.
That’s because four months into the unrest, the police are too exhausted to deploy sufficient numbers of officers to enforce it across the territory.
With regard to the proposal of restricting access to the internet, the government figure said it is easier said than done.
If shutting down the internet could quell the protests, the government would have done it a long time ago, the source said.
Nor is it going to make any difference if the government bans certain specific websites; netizens can shift to other online platforms instantly once their favorite websites are blocked.
Given that, the person believes that imposing restrictions on the internet ban by invoking the Emergency Regulations Ordinance is unlikely to be on the table for the government – at least for the time being.
This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Oct 8
Translation by Alan Lee with additional reporting
[Chinese version 中文版]
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