Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung Kin-chung said the government does not seek to clamp down on protests with the anti-mask ordinance, stressing that the main purpose of the law is to deter the commission of crimes.
As such, the controversial law that prohibits the wearing of face masks in public assemblies should not be a cause for worry among law-abiding citizens, Cheung told an inter-departmental press conference on Thursday.
Asked by media whether the mask ban is effective, Cheung said it is too early to make an informed assessment as the measure only took effect last Saturday, adding that it takes time for all concerned to familiarize themselves with the new law, the Hong Kong Economic Journal reports.
That said, Cheung said he is sure that the anti-mask law, given time, “will act as an effective deterrent to help police in [their] enforcement work”.
Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor last Friday invoked colonial-era emergency powers in introducing the ban on face masks.
Following her announcement, protests erupted across the city, which led to widespread vandalism and serious clashes between police and protesters during the three-day holiday.
Cheung stressed the government is not trying to suppress protests with the anti-mask law.
“We never clamp down on protests, we only clamp down on violence,” he said, adding that the government has “no further intention, particularly in the context of the Policy Address, of devising new measures to clamp down on protests”.
The No. 2 official also praised the police force for protecting citizens’ life and property, and maintaining social order. He said the police are not alone as the government has been working as a team to bring back peace to Hong Kong.
According to Cheung, a total of 2,379 people had been arrested for their involvement in illegal anti-government protests and other mass activities as of 5 a.m. on Thursday. Of this number, 750 or almost a third are aged 18 while 104 are below 16.
Calling the figures “shocking and heartbreaking”, the chief secretary appealed to parents and teachers to admonish young people against taking part in acts of violence and putting themselves in danger by getting close to police cordon lines, which may result in more arrests and injuries.
Cheung stressed several times that the current predicament can only be resolved by measures to stop violence, open dialogue and handle deep-seated conflicts in society.
The chief executive’s policy address, to be delivered next Wednesday, would seek to address deep-rooted conflicts, adding that the government is studying backup plans in case the chief executive cannot deliver her speech in person at the Legislative Council.
In the same press conference, Secretary for Transport and Housing Frank Chan Fan firmly denied allegations that early closure of many MTR stations for repairs in the past few days was a de facto curfew.
Chan said 83 of the 93 MTR stations have been vandalized and MTR staff have been doing their best to bring service back to normal by spending long hours every day checking and fixing damaged facilities at the stations, whether they were attacked or not.
Since railway safety is the government’s top concern, it would be difficult for MTR to operate smoothly before safety can be ensured, said Chan, who admitted additional time is needed to repair damaged facilities at the stations. He did not give an estimate of repair and maintenance costs.
The transport chief also revealed that since the protests started in June, Hong Kong has seen more than 400 sets of traffic lights vandalized and up to 42 kilometers – about the standard distance of a marathon race – of roadside railings dismantled, plus damages to 2,600 square meters (28,000 square feet) of brick-paved sidewalks.
On Friday, MTR chief of operations Sammy Wong Kwan-wai said 85 of the 93 heavy-rail stations had been vandalized by protesters, while 53 Light Rail stops had been trashed as of Monday.
Over 1,200 turnstiles, 800 ticketing machines, 900 CCTV cameras and 50 escalators had been damaged, Wong added.
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