The protest movement in Hong Kong moved into its 17th week on an increasingly escalatory and violent path as protesters and security forces clashed on China's National Day. With a controversial, nearly century-old emergency ordinance now on the table, the options available to Hong Kong's government and security forces to quell the protests are reaching their limit before the unwanted and costly option of an intervention by Beijing has to be seriously contemplated.
With its political will and space to make additional concessions to Hong Kong's protest movement narrowed, and with its security actions having failed to stifle four months of demonstrations, Hong Kong authorities are set to invoke a controversial colonial-era emergency ordinance and ban the wearing of masks. Chief Executive Carrie Lam is set to convene an Executive Council meeting on Oct 4 to discuss the anti-mask law along with other measures that, if approved, would take effect immediately. Even a limited application of the emergency ordinance effectively means the Hong Kong government is nearing the limit of what it can do to pacify the protests.
If implemented in full, the emergency ordinance would empower Lam to control the internet, seize key transport hubs, and arrest and deport protesters. But even limiting emergency measures to a ban on wearing masks (similar prohibitions exist in the United States, Canada and elsewhere, by the way) could raise significant legal issues, as the move would effectively bypass Hong Kong's legislature, and it will add yet another layer of political opposition to Hong Kong's embattled government. The law also risks further upsetting the city's business community and incurring international condemnation (politicians in the United States and the United Kingdom have warned against enforcing the emergency ordinance), concerns that previously had restrained Lam's administration. By ratcheting up its security and legal actions, however, Lam's administration will submit itself to these risks as it further defies a key protester demand — an independent investigation of police actions against protesters — by giving Hong Kong's security forces additional powers.
The prospect for even more vicious cycles of unrest and crackdown would further limit the space for political compromise and force the government into further expanding its emergency powers to include more extreme and much riskier options.
Indeed, the police and many pro-establishment politicians called on the government to take tougher action against protesters after violent protests on Oct. 1, China's National Day. It's far from certain that an anti-mask law alone would have a cooling effect on the demonstrations. It could even radicalize protesters to defy the law or adopt guerrilla tactics, which would try the ability of Hong Kong's already demoralized and weakened police force to enforce the measure. Indeed, almost every step police have taken to crack down on the protesters over the past four months has emboldened them to adopt more confrontational tactics and actions. The prospect for even more vicious cycles of unrest and crackdown would further limit the space for political compromise and force the government into further expanding its emergency powers to include more extreme and much riskier options, from widespread arrests to the seizure of the airport, subway and other transportation networks to a partial or citywide curfew that the police would be hard-pressed to enforce.
Crucially, Lam is weighing the option of invoking emergency powers shortly after her return from the National Day parade in Beijing, which at a minimum suggests a level of coordination with China's central government and possibly its consent. Beijing, which would certainly prefer that Lam's government and police handle the unrest, wants to avoid the high political and economic costs of an intervention, including immediate U.S. sanctions and disruption of its efforts to maintain its "one country, two systems" with regard to Hong Kong. This is especially true given that the protests have yet to reach the mainland and have become a point to rally patriotism. Still, as its doubling of security forces in its Hong Kong garrison and the continued presence of armed police forces in nearby Shenzhen indicate, costly options have never been off the table for Beijing. And while the full enforcement of Hong Kong's emergency ordinance could be seen as a measure of last resort by the city's government to try to stabilize the political situation and head off Beijing's intervention, any coordination between Hong Kong and Beijing on rolling out emergency powers also would arguably entail Beijing's preparing a contingency plan of its own, however unwilling it is to take that step or however costly it would be.