HONG KONG—Hong Kong’s government is expected to discuss sweeping emergency laws on Oct. 5 that would include banning face masks at protests, two people told Reuters, as the Chinese-ruled territory grapples with an escalating cycle of violence.
Authorities have already loosened guidelines on the use of force by police, according to documents seen by Reuters on Oct. 3, as they struggle to stamp out pro-democracy protests that have rocked Hong Kong for nearly four months.
The loosening of restrictions on the use of force came into effect shortly before some of the most violent turmoil seen in the protests on Oct. 1, with police firing about 1,400 rounds of tear gas, 900 rubber bullets, and six live rounds, as protesters threw petrol bombs and wielded sticks.
More than 100 people were wounded, including a teenage secondary school student who was shot in the chest and wounded; that was the first time a demonstrator had been shot by live fire.
In the documents seen by Reuters, the police manual changed some guidelines on how officers could act when considering force, and also removed a line that stated officers should be accountable for their actions.
Media also reported about changes to the police procedure manual, with effect from Sept. 30, ahead of protests on China’s National Day on Oct. 1—the 70th anniversary of the Communist Party’s takeover of China.
Police declined to comment when asked if amendments had been made.
“The guidelines on the use of force involve details of operation. It may affect the normal and effective operation of the police force and work of police on crime prevention if details are made public,” police said in a statement to Reuters.
While police in the former British colony have long been admired for their professionalism compared with some forces elsewhere in Asia, the public has become increasingly hostile toward the police in recent weeks, amid accusations of heavy-handed tactics.
The unrest, which began over opposition to a now-withdrawn extradition bill that would have allowed people to be sent to mainland China for trial, shows no sign of letting up.
Protesters, fired up over the shooting of the young man this week, planned more demonstrations at shopping malls across 11 districts to begin Oct. 3 and extending through the weekend.
The opposition to the Beijing-backed government has plunged the city into its biggest political crisis in decades and poses one of the gravest popular challenges to Chinese leader Xi Jinping.
Protesters are angry about what they see as creeping interference by Beijing in their city’s affairs, despite a promise of autonomy in the “one country, two systems” formula under which Hong Kong returned to China in 1997.
Media reported about an expected ban on face masks, which many protesters wear to conceal their identities and shield themselves from tear gas.
The government decided to impose the ban under the law giving police sweeping emergency powers in a special meeting of the city’s Executive Council, media outlets TVB and Cable TV reported.
Elizabeth Quat, a lawmaker for a pro-Beijing political party, told a news conference the measure was aimed at stopping “illegal assemblies.”
“This law is not targeting peaceful protesters. It is focused on targeting those rioters who have committed heinous crimes,” she said.
But pro-democracy lawmakers fear the emergency powers could be used to further curtail freedoms.
“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,” lawmaker Fernando Cheung told Reuters. “This is no different than adding fuel to fire. The result will be riots.”
On Oct. 3, Lam Chi-wai, chairman of Junior Police Officers Association, urged the city’s leader to impose a curfew to maintain public order.
“We cannot work alone—clapping only with one hand—without appropriate measures and support from top level,” Lam said.
A lawyer for the teenager shot in the chest on Oct. 1 while fighting with an officer appeared in court on his behalf.
Tony Tsang, who was shot at close range as he fought an officer with what appeared to be a white pole, was charged with rioting, which carries a maximum 10-year sentence, and assaulting a police officer.
Tsang is hospitalized in stable condition and wasn’t able to attend the court session. But about 200 supporters turned up to watch the proceedings.
The lawyer for an Indonesian journalist injured when police fired a projectile during protests on Sept. 29 said she had been blinded in one eye.
The European Union said in a statement it was deeply troubled by the escalation of violence and the only way forward was through “restraint, de-escalation, and dialogue.”
The protests have also forced the cancellation of major public events.
The city’s tourism board announced a cycling tournament, the Hong Kong Cyclothon, and the Hong Kong Wine & Dine Festival, had both been called off, citing “unforeseen circumstances in the coming weeks.”
By Clare Jim, Felix Tam, Donny Kwok, and James Pomfret