HONG KONG -- Hong Kong is planning to invoke potentially sweeping emergency powers in response to increasingly violent protests, local media reported on Thursday.
The Executive Council, the government's highest policymaking body, will convene a special session on Friday to discuss emergency measures, including a ban on the wearing of masks during protests, media reported.
Protesters who have been vandalizing train stations and engaging in street battles with police commonly wear heavy-duty construction-industry breathing masks and goggles, both to protect themselves from tear gas and pepper spray as well as to shield their identity.
Pro-government groups have been calling for the authorities to ban masks as a deterrent to protesters, but until now Chief Executive Carrie Lam has resisted calls to invoke emergency powers. Last week, she told reporters that the government would have to study whether an anti-mask law would be effective or would damage the city's international reputation.
Hong Kong's Legislative Council, which would normally be the body to adopt a legal ban, has been on an extended summer break since July when protesters sacked its chambers. It is expected to reconvene later this month. A number of police associations on Wednesday also called for the government to implement a curfew.
"The government has been using existing applicable laws in handling recent protests and confrontations, and will study the existing legislation to cope with the current situation," a government spokesperson told the Nikkei Asian Review.
The abrupt turn of events shows that the Hong Kong government and Beijing may have reached an agreement to take heightened measures against protesters due to the fast deterioration of events on Oct. 1, said Willy Lam, an adjunct professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong's Centre for China Studies.
"This will certainly affect Hong Kong's reputation as an international finance center and put off foreign investments," Lam told Nikkei.
To quickly enforce the law, he said the government is likely to bypass the Legislative Council and seek to pass an emergency ordinance, which carries a wide range of powers for Carrie Lam and her cabinet.
The continuing protests took a dark turn this week when a police officer shot a protester with a bullet for the first time during street fighting on Oct. 1, China's national day. The protester, a high school student who remains in the hospital, was charged on Thursday with rioting.
While pro-government groups have been keen to unmask protesters, demonstrators have pushed demands for law enforcement officers to abide by customary rules on displaying their police identification numbers so that they can be held accountable for abuses.
It is unclear how much effect a mask law would have. Many thousands of residents have participated in unauthorized protests, with some also flouting laws against graffiti, vandalism and other offenses.
In addition to banning protesters from wearing masks, emergency authority allows the chief executive to lawfully censor media, take control of private properties and suspend business activities.
Pro-democracy lawmakers condemned the planned use of the colonial-era Emergency Regulations Ordinance.
"It will pave the way for Carrie Lam to pass new draconian laws, such as giving police [the right] to detain suspects without trial, enacting national security legislation, and confiscating private properties," Ray Chan Chi-chuen of the People Power party told Nikkei. "The new law will provoke more people to protest, and many will choose to do so in a more militant manner."
Fernando Cheung Chiu-hung, a Labour Party lawmaker, said that invoking the ordinance would "completely" bypass the Legislative Council. "This is setting a very dangerous precedent, and it'll surely further shake the rule of law in Hong Kong."
"The main reason for protesters to conceal their identity is because they don't trust the government or the police," Cheung told Nikkei. "To impose an anti-mask law in the current social condition is to further infuriate the people and will definitely be met with escalating violence."
The government has not invoked emergency powers since 1967 when the British colonial authorities struggled to combat leftist unrest amid China's Cultural Revolution. The current protests were originally sparked in June by government moves to rush through a law to expedite the extradition of criminal suspects to mainland China and other countries.
"Imposing the anti-mask law now will only pour the oil to the fire," said Ivan Choy Chi-keung, a lecturer in political science at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. He said the action will further ignite the protesters who are frustrated over unanswered demands.
"It will set a very bad precedent. It's like opening a Pandora's box," he said, adding that it is likely to lead to more extreme emergency restrictions.