Special Briefing: A Face Mask Ban Raises Stakes For Hong Kong’s Protesters

Why you should care

Because creativity always counts.

This is an OZY Special Briefing, an extension of the Presidential Daily Brief. The Special Briefing tells you what you need to know about an important issue, individual or story that is making news. Each one serves up an interesting selection of facts, opinions, images and videos in order to catch you up and vault you ahead.

WHAT TO KNOW

What’s happening? Days after an 18-year-old demonstrator was shot by a live round for the first time in Hong Kong’s protest movement, reports suggest local authorities are planning to ban face masks at public gatherings. As the government considers shifting its strategy to restore order in the rebellious Chinese territory, the focus will fall back on the determined and often savvy protesters who’ve rattled one of the world’s most crowded cities — and one of its chief economic nerve centers — for 17 weeks straight. So how will they fight back this time?

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A demonstrator wears an Anonymous mask in Mong Kok a day before Chinese National Day.

Source Getty Images

Why does it matter? Events in Hong Kong this week mark yet another dramatic crest in a wave of protests, whether in North Africa or East Asia, that has washed over the world in recent weeks. This movement’s formidable opponent is a Beijing-backed government that’s equally determined to save face, so how protesters adapt could prove useful for fellow activists demonstrating against heavy-handed regimes elsewhere.

HOW TO THINK ABOUT IT

Law of the land. If Hong Kong’s Cabinet approves the Emergency Regulations Ordinance Friday, as multiple sources suggest, it could mark another significant escalation in the crisis. That’s because it’s been decades since the colonial-era law — which allows the government to impose curfews and carry out searches, among other sweeping powers — has been invoked. Chief Executive Carrie Lam has reportedly proposed limited use of the ordinance by applying it only to face masks, which have become both a practical fixture and a symbol of the movement. But both local pro-democracy lawmakers and foreign officials believe it’ll backfire. 

“Be like water.” A nod to famous Hongkonger Bruce Lee, that’s the movement’s unofficial motto. It describes protesters’ guerilla strategy, aimed at evading police and adapting to their movements on the streets. But it’s been equally useful online: For example, when popular messaging app Telegram was attacked from mainland China, activists used Apple’s peer-to-peer AirDrop feature to pass notes back and forth. They’ve also adopted a sign language to broadcast any number of vital messages during tense situations, whether it’s to warn of danger or request more helmets.

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Riot police charge inside the Tai Koo MTR station on October 3, 2019 in Hong Kong, China.

Source Getty Images

Friends in high places. Activists in Hong Kong might also look to the mainland for inspiration since their web-savvy Chinese counterparts know well how to avoid Big Brother. Case in point: When the Chinese government cracked down on the #MeToo hashtag, users switched to the phrase “rice bunny” — pronounced mitu in Chinese. The only problem? Authorities got wise to that too, which suggests that Hong Kong’s authorities might easily do the same.

Rising rage. When Tsang Chi-kin was shot Tuesday during demonstrations designed to spoil Chinese celebrations marking the 70th anniversary of communist rule, it quickly galvanized fellow protesters. Now, in a move that’s likely to stir further anger, Tsang’s being charged with rioting and attacking police. As clashes grow more intense — this week’s violence was Hong Kong’s worst since the territory was returned to China by the U.K. — it remains unclear whether creativity alone can help the protesters. Police and their allies, who “believe they have been humiliated,” as one expert told The New York Times, have long lobbied for more powers. And as cops have stepped up their heavy-handed tactics, protesters have also become more brutal, taunting their uniformed opponents with chants like, “Families of dirty police deserve to die,” and even attacking officers’ homes.

WHAT TO READ

Life on the Frontline in Hong Kong by Lisa Murray and Michael Smith in the Australian Financial Review

“As violence begets more violence, the city seems gripped in a downward spiral that might appear to favour heavier intervention from Beijing.”

Is Hong Kong’s Crisis China’s Version of the Ukraine Crisis? by Lyle J. Goldstein in The National Interest

“The deep fractures exposed in both cases accord well with the widening chasms characteristic of the New Cold War, featuring the freedom loving, boisterous West against the despotic, corrupt and supposedly declining East.”

WHAT TO WATCH

Hong Kong Police Shot a Protester at Point-Blank Range. Here’s What Happened

Watch on the New York Times on YouTube:

Hong Kong Divided Over Unrest Amid Mass Protests

“Ordinary people are being victimized the most — we will end up losing our jobs.”

Watch on Al Jazeera on YouTube:

WHAT TO SAY AT THE WATERCOOLER

Saving face. The Hong Kong government isn’t relying only on force and intimidation to emerge from this crisis (relatively) unscathed: It’s also hoping to sanitize its image abroad. Yet while the city reportedly reached out to eight global PR firms, none of them agreed to help.

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