HONG KONG — Furiously yelling “Wearing a mask is not a crime,” tens of thousands of masked protesters hit Hong Kong’s rain-drenched streets Sunday in defiance of a new ban on facial coverings. Riot police later swept in with volleys of tear gas and muscular arrests as peaceful rallies again degenerated into widespread violence and chaos in the semi-autonomous Chinese territory.
Instead of deterring rioting and calming anti-government demonstrations that have gripped the international trading hub for four months, the ban that criminalized the wearing of face masks at rallies only redoubled the determination of both peaceful marchers and more radical black-clad youths. The hard-liners again lobbed gasoline bombs and trashed subway stations and China-linked banks in the city.
For the first time in the crisis, men on the roof of one of the Chinese military’s barracks in Hong Kong raised a yellow banner warning protesters they were breaking the law when laser pointers were flashed at the building, according to video broadcast by Hong Kong media.
Police said masked rioters also attacked bystanders, including two men left unconscious after bloody beatings and a woman who took photos of rioting.
A massive peaceful march to the central business district — on streets spray-painted with the word “resist” and hemmed in by high-rises that echoed with protesters’ chants — came as Hong Kong’s High Court rejected a second effort to invalidate the mask ban.
Lawmaker Dennis Kwok said the court refused to grant an injunction but agreed to hear later this month an application by 24 legislators against Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam’s use of sweeping emergency powers to impose the ban without legislative approval.
Lam’s government says that the mask ban will make the identification of rioters easier for police and that other measures are possible if violence continues.
The city’s MTR network of subways and trains that was entirely closed Saturday partially reopened Sunday, with greatly reduced service that protesters said made traveling to rallies harder but didn’t make them want to stay home.
“Carrie Lam is not the god of Hong Kong. She can’t do anything she likes,” said retiree Patricia Anyeung, marching masked with her sister, Rebecca.
“They can’t arrest us all. There are thousands of us,” said Anyeung. “There is no going back — we are at the point of no return.” Anyeung, who holds a British passport, said she may leave Hong Kong if the city’s freedoms are extinguished.
Many malls also remained shuttered as streets downtown turned into a sea of umbrellas held aloft both against rain and because they’ve become a symbol of protest, used by demonstrators as shields against police identification, tear gas and rubber bullets.
Critics fear Lam’s use of the Emergency Regulations Ordinance that gives her broad powers to implement any measures she deems necessary could pave the way for more draconian moves. The law was enacted by British colonial rulers in 1922 to quell a seamen’s strike and was last used in 1967 to crush riots.
“This emergency law is so ancient and draconian. Carrie Lam is using it as some sort of weapon of mass destruction to nuke Hong Kong,” said legislator Claudia Mo.
Lam says she will seek the legislature’s backing for the mask ban when it meets next on Oct. 16. The ban makes the wearing of masks and even face-paint at both illegal and police-approved gatherings punishable by up to a year in jail.
A police official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media said some arrests were made Sunday for violating the ban, but he couldn’t give any numbers.
Enforcement is tricky in a city where many have worn surgical masks since a deadly respiratory disease outbreak in 2003.
The ban turned the wearing of masks into an act of rebellion for many protesters.
“For the sake of our freedom, there’s nothing we’re afraid of,” protester Feng Yiucheng said through his black mask, accompanied by his wife and 2-year-old son. “We cannot let them act like emperors.”
Groups of black-clad youths roamed the city center, setting up barricades, covering the urban landscape with anti-China graffiti, cutting power lines to traffic lights and using walkie-talkies and messaging apps to coordinate.
Both peaceful and violent demonstrators say violence and vandalism is the only way for young protesters to force the government to bend to clamors for full democracy and other demands.
The shooting of a 14-year-old boy Friday night — the second protest victim of police gunfire — stoked fears of more bloody confrontations. An 18-year-old protester was shot at close range by a riot officer on Tuesday. He was charged with rioting and assaulting police, while the younger teen was arrested.