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China attacks Hong Kong ruling to overturn mask ban

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Via Financial Times

China’s parliament signalled its “strong dissatisfaction” with a Hong Kong court ruling that overturned a contentious mask ban, in an intervention that threatens to inflame tensions in the territory where a police siege of a university entered a third day.

In a statement published by the official Xinhua news agency, a National People’s Congress spokesperson said members of its of law and labour committee “expressed serious concern” about the Hong Kong High Court ruling, which invalidated a mask ban implemented in early October.

The ban, which prohibits the wearing of masks during public assemblies, was passed after Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive, used emergency powers that allow her to bypass the territory’s legislative council.

In its decision on Monday, the Hong Kong courts said that the emergency powers ordinance used by Ms Lam — a colonial relic last triggered in 1973 when the city was under British rule — did not accord with Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, or Basic Law.

“Whether the laws of Hong Kong comply with the Basic Law can only be judged and decided by the Standing Committee of the NPC,” the spokesperson added. “No other authority has the right to make [such] judgments and decisions.”

Chinese officials strongly supported both the use of the emergency powers ordinance and the mask ban, which they said were needed to quell a protest movement that is entering its sixth month and has become increasingly violent. The rebellion was initially triggered by opposition to an extradition bill that would have seen criminal suspects sent to mainland China for the first time. The bill has since been withdrawn.

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A protester is detained by riot police while attempting to leave the campus of Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU) during clashes with police in Hong Kong, China November 18, 2019. REUTERS/Thomas Peter
A protester is arrested as he tries to flee Hong Kong Polytechnic University © Reuters

The demonstrators’ demands now focus on an independent judicial inquiry into the crisis, including allegations of systematic police brutality against protesters, and the introduction of democratic elections for Hong Kong’s chief executive and all 70 members of its legislative council, the city’s de facto parliament.

The NPC is a rubber-stamp body that meets for two weeks every March. According to the Basic Law, its Standing Committee, which meets monthly, is the supreme authority on Hong Kong constitutional matters. The NPC Standing Committee has previously issued “legal reinterpretations” of various Hong Kong laws that effectively overturned court decisions in the territory.

Tuesday’s statement did not constitute a formal rejection of the Hong Kong court ruling. But by signalling its intention to do so before the Hong Kong government could even appeal against the decision to the territory’s own Court of Final Appeal, the NPC risks fuelling protests motivated by a belief the city’s rights and freedoms have been eroded by Beijing.

The decision came as Hong Kong police laid siege to a university campus, trapping hundreds of protesters since Sunday and sparking ferocious and violent clashes. The battle has forced the closure of the Cross Harbour tunnel, which links the territory’s main business district to the Kowloon peninsula and the rest of the city.

Several protesters escaped from Hong Kong Polytechnic University on Monday night, evading a police cordon. Others were arrested as they tried to leave.

Government and police spokespeople vowed to charge anybody who laid down their weapons and exited the besieged university with “rioting”, which carries a sentence of up to 10 years in prison.

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Black-clad protesters outside the campus fought fierce battles with police in the streets around the university in an attempt to break the siege through the night. Earlier on Monday evening, a group of parents who said their children were inside begged police for their safe release.

Hong Kong is scheduled to hold district council elections on November 24, in what would be a critical test of the depth of popular support for the “frontline” protesters. The Hong Kong government has signalled that those elections may not go ahead if violent protests continue.

The NPC statement is the strongest statement by Beijing since it hinted late last month that it would take stronger measures to restore order in the territory.

“The content of [Monday’s Hong Kong] court judgment has seriously weakened the administrative power of Hong Kong’s chief executive and government,” the spokesperson added.

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