Hong Kong is turning to a 1922 law that was used to quell a seamen’s strike to ban face masks

United in anonymity.
United in anonymity.
Image: Reuters/Jorge Silva
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests show few signs of subsiding four months in. Now, the government is turning to a 1922 law in hopes of quelling them by making it impossible for protesters to conceal their identities.

The law against the use of face masks (pdf) was issued today (Oct. 4), without going through the Legislative Council, set to reopen on Oct. 16. Instead, the ban was brought in under the Emergency Regulations Ordinance, which gives special powers to the chief executive to pass an array of regulations in situations of “public danger.”

The sweeping ordinance, passed in a single day, was a useful tool for the British colonial government when faced with a seamen’s strike in January 1922—but laid the foundations for long-simmering deep discontent in the city. That year, Chinese seamen, weighed down by the increased cost of living and  stagnant wages, got fed up with a racist pay scale system imposed in Hong Kong, through which foreign seamen were paid significantly more than Chinese ones. The foreign seamen at the time were mostly Filipinos and Lascars (sailors from India or East Asia, often Bengali Muslims), while white seamen could be paid several times more. When the white sailors demanded, and easily obtained, a 15% wage rise, the frustrated locals went on strike.

Chinese port workers demanded a pay adjustment of 40%. As they stopped working, ships bypassed Hong Kong, food piled up at the port, and trash went uncollected. The protest of the Chinese seamen and port workers enjoyed an extremely wide support in Colonial Hong Kong, and very soon workers from all walks of life joined in and stopped work. Reportedly, 120,000 people went on strike, and, in an eerie parallel with today, the Colonial government decided to stop the trains, in order to make it difficult for protesters to join the strikes. Protesters just walked. Fifty-two days into the strike, the ordinance was brought in to subdue the strike, but workers’ demands were also partially met, with wage rises of up to 30% approved by the shipping companies.

But the draconian law remained in the books and survived the 1997 handover of sovereignty from Great Britain to China unscathed. This is just one of many repressive colonial laws that have remained active for decades, and used to suppress dissent or difference, after the British have long left, such as  laws against defamation or same-sex relations. In some cases newly independent countries used colonial laws as a blueprint for new ones, as with the Internal Security Act in Malaysia and Singapore, drafted in 1960 from previous British emergency laws.

Hong Kong’s emergency rules were last used in 1967, when labor strikes broke out in Hong Kong for similar reasons as the 1992 strikes. Left-wing groups with ties to the mainland, where the Cultural Revolution had just begun, used the moment to fuel deadly riots and bombings that killed dozens of people in the city.

This year’s protests began in opposition to a law that would have made it possible to send people from Hong Kong to mainland China to face trial but have broadened to include demands like an independent inquiry into allegations of police brutality and democratic elections. More protests are expected this evening ahead of the anti-mask law taking effect at midnight.