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Mask March Ban Has a Chilling Precedent for Hong Kong Pro-Democracy Activists in the UK

Refugees from Chinese oppression in Britain also believe the Government’s crackdown on face masks at demonstrations opens them up to reprisals

Carmen Lau, activist in exile and former Pro-democratic District Councillor of Hong Kong, during a rally outside Downing Street in June 2020. Photo: SOPA Images Limited/Alamy

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A former Hong Kong district councillor has blasted Home Office plans to crack down on protestors wearing masks at demonstrations.

Carmen Lau, now the International Advocacy and Programme Associate of Hong Kong Democracy Council, warned that rules restricting protesters’ ability to wear face coverings could risk the safety of pro-democracy activists amid increased transnational repression from Beijing.

The proposed new protest rules could see demonstrators face up to a month behind bars and a £1,000 fine for flouting an order to remove their mask.

But Carmen told the Byline Times the measures reminded her of crackdowns on protest in her own home city.

She said: “It was almost the same as these new rules in the UK. I remember back in 2019 when the law passed, there was a massive protest where Hong Kongers wore the mask of Guy Fawkes to protest against these laws.

“The Hong Kong community in the UK, especially those who are politically active, are really aware of these rules. We protested against the face-covering law in Hong Kong, I don’t think we thought the UK government would pass this law here as well.”

Mass protests started in Hong Kong in 2019 following the introduction of a proposed bill that would have allowed extradition from the region to mainland China.

While this bill was later shelved, the protests continued into 2020 – the same year in which a controversial Beijing-imposed National Security Law was introduced, which many pro-democracy activists said would roll back civil liberties in Hong Kong.

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Carmen, who was elected as a district councillor amid the pro-democracy movement in 2019, had to flee her home city in 2021 and come to the UK because of the growing repression.

She said: “In Hong Kong, there was a good reason why we didn’t trust the police or the government. But here it could assist in the transnational repression that the Chinese government is conducting in the UK.”

Authorities in both mainland China and Hong Kong have claimed the National Security Law was needed to maintain order and stability in the region. US-based NGO Freedom House claims China has conducted a “sophisticated, global, and comprehensive” transnational repression campaign.

Hong Kong authorities have also issued arrest warrants for high-profile activists including Nathan Law for alleged violations of the National Security Law – many of whom are now based overseas.

Fears of Reprisal

Carmen also told Byline Times that many Hong Kongers in the UK are wary of being photographed or identified at protests out of fear their families in Hong Kong might face reprisal.

“That is why many of us cover our faces, even though we are protesting in a democratic and relatively safe country,” she said. “All of us, not just the activists, are really afraid of their identity being exposed or traced by the Chinese Communist Party’s agents.”

The Hong Kong government is expected to implement its own domestic national security legislation this Spring under constitutional requirements.

A Foreign Office spokesperson said: “The Foreign Secretary has made the UK’s concerns clear – legislation should align with international standards and uphold basic rights and freedoms. We urge the Hong Kong authorities to allow time for proper legislative scrutiny.”

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Pro-democracy activists have raised fears the new legislation will see further deepen repression in Hong Kong.

Hong Kong Chief Executive John Lee said in January: “We will be respecting and safeguarding the freedoms and rights lawfully enjoyed by the people of Hong Kong and by the organisations in Hong Kong.”

But British Foreign Secretary David Cameron has claimed the new law “will have a negative impact on the people of Hong Kong in the exercise of their rights and freedoms.”

Hong Kong was formerly under British rule, but it was handed over to China in 1997 under the “One Country, Two Systems” policy, which granted the territory a degree of autonomy from the mainland.

Carmen added: “What we need is to push our democratic movement forward, and we do need help from governments like the UK and the US. I hope the UK government becomes more assertive in its actions and statements towards the situation in Hong Kong.

“I am grateful that the UK government has spoken out, but there is more to do – such as sanctioning those responsible for human rights abuses and providing a safe space for us to protest against the CCP.”

A Home Office spokesperson said: “The right to protest is a fundamental part of our democracy but we must also protect the law-abiding majority’s right to go about their daily lives.

“It is unacceptable that people can commit offences and evade justice through wearing a face covering and the new measures, which will be introduced in the Criminal Justice Bill, will prevent protesters from covering their face wholly or mainly for the purpose of avoiding conviction for criminal behaviour within the designated area.”

They added that nearly 200,000 visas have been granted to Hong Kongers under the bespoke BN(O) scheme.

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