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Hong Kong: Face Mask Ban Fuels Fiercer Protest

The masks, like many of the protesters’ strategies, circumvent China’s omnipresent high-tech surveillance

Over the past four months, the Hong Kong protests have, for the most part, been peaceful except for a couple of encounters between front-line protesters and police. The protesters mainly comprise young people who are fearful of the Chinese government’s encroaching rule over Hong Kong. So when the Hong Kong government banned facial masks, the protesters defied the law by coming out en masse in masks. Then, some of the “hard-line” protesters turned to vandalism and violence in response to police enforcement. So tensions are escalating.

Hong Kong found itself in the precarious position of “one country, two systems” after the British handover to China in 1997. Up to now, residents have enjoyed freedoms that mainlanders do not enjoy, such as uncensored internet access and the right to protest government decisions peacefully, Hongkongers fear that they will lose their democratic way of life. The extradition bill that incited the protests four months ago was just such a flashpoint because it would enable the mainland government to extradite its critics to China. One of the protesters’ demands is universal suffrage, allowing the people of Hong Kong to elect their government officials directly, rather than through a committee. Currently, the Hong Kong government has a majority of pro-Beijing members.

Tensions flared after Carrie Lam, chief executive of Hong Kong, enacted an emergency ordinance declaring the protestors’ use of face masks illegal:

The Emergency Regulations Ordinance, introduced by the British in 1922. It hasn’t been used in more than half a century, but can still be invoked in case of emergency or public danger. It affords the chief executive (as Hong Kong’s post-colonial leaders are called) the power to make “any regulations whatsoever which he may consider desirable in the public interest.” Its provisions include arrests, property seizures, deportation, control of the ports and transportation — and censorship.

Shelly Banjo, “How Far Hong Kong’s Emergency Law Can Go (Online Too)” at Bloomberg (October 3, 2019)

Lam’s reach back into a century-old British past, when the law was used to curb protests by underpaid seamen, does not bode well.

Why are face masks important?

In a recent article here, I reported on the many, often ingenious ways that the protesters prevent the Chinese government from identifying them. These methods include spray-painting video cameras, using lasers to obscure hand-held cameras, removing the wiring from surveillance cameras—and wearing face masks.

Democratic countries, including the United States, have banned face masks too but the issues are different in Hong Kong. This particular ban hits at the heart of Hongkongers’ fears—that Beijing’s totalitarian policies will seep in. Facial recognition enables China to use high tech surveillance to keep tabs on citizen’s behavior:

“At its core, face mask bans pose a question about power: who gets to wield it, and who gets to place limits on it. The masked person can look but not be seen—an enormous and liberating power particularly in today’s age of surveillance. For the state and those in authority, the mask represents a threat because their power is in part drawn from knowing exactly who you are.

Mary Hui, “A Brief History of Government Efforts to Stop People from Wearing Masks” at Quartz (October 4, 2019)

Chinese tech companies lead the world in facial recognition technology, and as per the rules of doing business in China, those companies are required to provide their technology to the Chinese government. Thus the government has an extensive biometric database of its citizens and can identify practically anyone in the country from a camera image.

Protesters fear that if identified, not only will they face jail time, but there will be lifelong consequences to themselves and their families. Their fears are not without merit considering the fate of the Uyghur people in the Xinjiang province, who incited the ire of the government after protesting in Urumqi, the capital. They have since faced almost ten years of repression, living in what many consider “the most tightly controlled surveillance state in the world.”

Is this a first step toward an Uyghur-style crackdown?

Professor Ma Ngok, a political scientist at the Chinese University of Hong Kong offers a sobering assessment of the law, which also bans face paint:

“Today, she declared that the authoritarian government can take away your freedoms any time,” said Prof Ma Ngok, political scientist at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. He added that the new law would likely prove impossible to enforce and counterproductive, provoking “an even larger and more violent resistance”.

Emma Graham-Harrison, “Violence grips Hong Kong as Lam activates emergency powers” at The Guardian (October 4, 2019)

The law says that Lam can impose other restrictions if public safety is threatened. These include state-imposed curfews and internet bans. After Lam announced the face mask ban, several protesters encouraged people to purchase virtual private networks (VPNs) in case the non-censored internet that Hongkongers enjoy goes dark. Inside China’s Great Firewall, Beijing spins human rights violations in Xinjiang, for example, via social media. But Hongkongers hear about the high-tech surveillance and “vocational training” camps from the international media.

This freedom to exchange ideas on the internet, including on social media outlets like Facebook and Twitter outside of China, has proved invaluable to bolstering international support for the Hong Kong protesters. Many people across the globe are sympathetic to the protesters’ goal of preserving democracy. As a result, the NBA and gaming company Blizzard have experienced a widespread backlash for condemning a pro-Hong Kong tweet on the part of the Rockets’ GM and a statement in solidarity with the Hong Kong protesters by a professional e-sports player.

Christians, in particular, have supported the Hong Kong protesters because Hong Kong is a haven of religious liberty in a country that has systematically oppressed religious minorities. By contrast, by December 1, mainland Chinese will need to pass facial recognition scans to even use the internet.

Has the violence brought things to a tipping point?

Over the past forty-eight hours, the protests have turned violent, as the police used force against a teenage protester and protesters reportedly beat several civilians, including a taxi driver and a man who was yelling at them. The city has been in chaos with traffic lights are down and public transportation limited. Businesses have been vandalized and the economy is taking a hit.

Some people support the protesters’ violence as a necessary response to increasing police brutality, but others including supporters, say that the violence goes too far. They fear it may result in “alienating moderate supporters and members of the public, and play to Beijing’s depictions of the movement as the work of riotous mobs,” a story Beijing would be happy to play up.

One Hong Kong protester told the New York Times that while he sees some of the violence by hard-line protesters as justified, he is concerned about the escalating frequency: “It could make a lot of people feel that the protesters’ goal is no longer to resist the government, but to vent… I’m not optimistic because the government is pushing protesters to extremes, and then afterwards using their actions to stigmatize them.”

If the Chinese government uses the same playbook as with the Uyghurs, it may use violent behavior as a justification for stepping into the Hong Kong jurisdiction and obliterating the Hongkongers’ prized freedoms. The Uyghur people, as a whole, were painted as religious extremists, even though only about 1,000 people participated in violent protests. These protests, motivated by ethnic discrimination, happened nearly a decade ago yet over 1 million Uyghur people have been put in detention camps in the name of preventing terrorism and the entire Uyghur people continues to be oppressed by the Chinese government.

One scenario is that the Hong Kong government will use other restrictions under the Emergency Regulations Ordinance and eventually provoke a response that Beijing will see as a justification for stepping in.

Further reading on high-tech surveillance/digital oppression in China by Heather Zeiger:

Can China really silence Hong Kong? Hong Kong is tech-savvy and the protesters are adept at defeating high-tech assaults.

Some protestors use umbrellas to block the view of newly installed surveillance cameras while others dismantle the electronics. Others place traffic cones over tear gas canisters and then neutralize the gas with water.

The unadvertised cost of doing business with China: It’s a big market, with one Big Player, and some strange rules. In China, censorship includes democracy, human rights, sex, George Orwell’s 1984, and Winnie-the-Pooh (because the stuffed literary bear has been compared by some Chinese bloggers to their President). Such censorship, say many, minimizes the value of the internet.

China: What You Didn’t Say Could Be Used Against You An AI voiceprint could be used to generate words never said.

In China, high-tech racial profiling is social policy. For an ethnic minority, a physical checkup includes blood samples, fingerprints, iris scans, and voice recordings. The Chinese government seeks a database of everyone in the country, not only to track individuals but to determine the ethnicity of those who run up against the law.

The internet doesn’t free anyone by itself. China is testing 100% surveillance on the Uighurs, a strategically critical minority.

Heather Zeiger

Heather Zeiger is a freelance science writer in Dallas, TX. She has advanced degrees in chemistry and bioethics and writes on the intersection of science, technology, and society. She also serves as a research analyst with The Center for Bioethics & Human Dignity. Heather writes for bioethics.com, Salvo Magazine, and her work has appeared in RelevantMercatorNet, Quartz, and The New Atlantis.

Hong Kong: Face Mask Ban Fuels Fiercer Protest