A brief history of government efforts to stop people from wearing masks

Not guaranteed to work.
Not guaranteed to work.
Image: Reuters/Tyrone Siu
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

The Hong Kong government today (Oct. 4) invoked emergency powers to enact a ban on wearing face masks in public, even as critics decried the move as setting a dangerous precedent and jeopardizing the city’s protection of civil liberties.

It’s not the first place in the world to impose such a ban, and other countries have similar restrictions. France imposed a ban on face coverings in 2010, as did Belgium and the Catalonia region of Spain. Italy followed suit in 2011. Earlier this year, France imposed a ban on masks at public demonstrations, amid the months-long Yellow Vest protests. Many other countries have similar rules, including Australia, Austria, Bulgaria, Egypt, Germany, and the Netherlands. Ukraine’s anti-protest law of 2014, which was hurriedly enacted and included a ban on wearing masks, was meant to crack down on protesters but instead sparked an angry outcry that quickly grew into violent clashes.

The US, meanwhile, goes back much further to the mid-19th century, when an anti-mask law was enacted in New York state in an attempt to quell a violent uprising by tenant farmers. The law was cited by New York police (paywall) when they made arrests of Occupy protesters in 2011.

A masked anti-government protester is pictured in Central Hong Kong, China October 4, 2019.
A masked anti-government protester in the city’s downtown on Friday.

Supporters of Hong Kong’s mask ban point to these countries as examples. But pro-democracy lawmaker Dennis Kwok has dismissed comparisons to similar face-mask bans in countries like the US and Canada, emphasizing that those are fully-fledged democracies while neither the legislative nor the executive branch in Hong Kong is accountable to the people.

People also cite Ukrainians’ reaction to the country’s strict anti-protest laws as a cautionary tale. In local online forums, Hong Kongers have been sharing a speech made by jailed activist Edward Leung, who has become something of a spiritual leader of the city’s protesters. During his 2016 election campaign for the legislature, he cautioned against an anti-mask law. “A few years ago, Ukraine passed an anti-mask law. Do you know what happened in Ukraine? A revolution started in Ukraine. You want to do it? Do it, we will fight till the end,” he said.

A gas mask and flowers are seen at the site of the recent clashes in Kiev March 30, 2014.
A gas mask and flowers were left in 2014 at the protest site in Kyiv where more than 100 people were killed.
Image: Reuters/Gleb Garanich

At its core, face mask bans pose a question about power: who gets to wield it, and who gets to place limits on it. The masked person can look but not be seen—an enormous and liberating power particularly in today’s age of surveillance. For the state and those in authority, the mask represents a threat because their power is in part drawn from knowing exactly who you are.

For many in Hong Kong, the face mask ban is a reminder of the asymmetrical balance of power that they are protesting so hard against. While citizens are now prohibited from wearing masks in public assemblies, police officers will continue to be able to conceal their identities: many have refused to wear or produce their warrant cards, and have put strips of reflective tape on their visors to further hide their faces.

Writing in his book Man, Play and Games, the 20th-century French intellectual Roger Caillois observed the diametrical opposition between the mask and the uniform:

In a police state, the uniform replaces the mask of a vertiginous society. The uniform is almost the exact opposite of the mask, and always symbolizes a type of authority founded on entirely opposing principles. The mask aimed to dissimulate and terrify. It signified the eruption of a fearful, capricious, intermittent, and inordinate power, which emerged to evoke pious terror in the profane masses and to punish them for their imprudence and their faults. The uniform is also a disguise, but it is official, permanent, regulated, and, above all, leaves the face exposed.

The only difference in Hong Kong’s case, of course, is that even the uniformed individual is masked.

For now, anger runs high in Hong Kong. Protests spontaneously popped up across the city before and immediately after the official announcement of the ban, and there are calls for a large, masked rally on Sunday (Oct. 6) in full defiance of the new law.

Their faith in the mask as a counterweight to state power finds echoes in a series of large-scale anti-capitalism demonstrations that took place around the world in June 1999. One unnamed, masked activist who took part in a protest in London had this to say:  “Today we shall give this resistance a face; for by putting on our masks we reveal our unity; and by raising our voices in the street together, we speak our anger at the facelessness of power.”

A fine arts student wears make-up during the Catrina's parade in Guadalajara October 26, 2012. Students of fine arts took part in their Catrina's parade as part of the celebrations for the Day of the Dead, local media reported. La Catrina, a popular figure in Mexico known as "The Elegant Skull".
Does heavy make-up count as a mask? Above, a student in Guadalajara, Mexico, celebrates the Day of the Dead.
Image: Reuters/Alejandro Acosta