Hong Kong may curb access to the internet in a bid to contain months of increasingly violent pro-democracy protests, a cabinet member told AFP on Monday, after an emergency-law ban on demonstrators wearing face masks failed to quell the unrest.
The warning came as the city reeled from days of protests in which the city’s rail network and business outlets seen as pro-China were badly vandalized. The surge in protests was in response to the local government’s announcement on Friday it would invoke colonial-era emergency laws not used for more than 50 years to ban demonstrators from wearing face masks.
Chief Executive Carrie Lam said the ban was needed to contain the unrest, which began nearly four months ago and has seen millions of people take to the streets demanding China stop strangling their freedoms.
Ip Kwok-him, a veteran pro-Beijing politician and member of Hong Kong’s executive council, fueled concerns that the draconian Emergency Regulations Ordinance could be deployed to further curtail civil liberties when he said controls on the internet could also be introduced.
“The government will not rule out the possibility of placing a ban on the internet,” he told AFP.
Ip said the internet has been crucial to protesters, who have no public leaders and use online forums and encrypted messaging apps to mobilize.
But he said the government recognized any online shutdown could have a knock-on effect.
“I think a condition for implementing the internet ban would be not to affect any businesses in Hong Kong,” he said.
The executive council is Hong Kong’s cabinet, an advisory body to Lam.
She announced the ban on face masks immediately after meeting with the council on Friday.
On Monday night, hardcore protesters returned to the streets, vandalizing store fronts, blocking roads in multiple areas, and trashing two subway stations.
Police fired tear gas in at least three locations, although the clashes were less sustained and widespread than in recent nights.
A group of protesters however vandalized a Bank of China branch in the Tseung Kwan O neighborhood of Kowloon, destroying property and spray-painting slogans on the walls.
Earlier in the day, a male university student and a 38-year-old woman were the first people to be charged with illegally wearing masks as supporters packed the courtroom — many wearing face coverings.
They were charged with unlawful assembly, which carries up to three years jail time, and with defying the mask ban, which has a maximum one-year sentence. Both were released on bail.
Outside the court, demonstrators queued to get in, some chanting slogans such as “Wearing a face mask isn’t a crime” and “The law is unjust”.
Many said they feared the mask ban was just the first of more emergency orders to come.
“It’s an excuse to just introduce other totalitarian laws, next is martial law,” said one protester outside the court, who gave his surname as Lo.