Hong Kong protest leader Joshua Wong, already serving over a year in prison for his role in organizing anti-communist protests in 2019, received another four-month sentence Tuesday for wearing a mask in public.
Hong Kong outlawed the use of masks in public during protests in October 2019 to help police better identify and repress political dissidents. The ordinance compromised the city when the Chinese coronavirus pandemic arrived there the next year, leading to the city also mandating the use of masks in public. It remains both legal and illegal to wear a mask publicly in Hong Kong and the issue has created tensions between public health officials and the police. Police have limited themselves to enforcing the anti-mask law only in the context of protest behavior, effectively making any presence at protests in some form a violation of the law.
Wong, 24, was one of the most prominent leaders of the protest movement that erupted in 2019 in response to local officials proposing a law that would have allowed the extradition of anyone in Hong Kong, resident or otherwise, if the Chinese Communist Party accused them of violating communist laws. Under the “One Country, Two Systems” policy that ruled Hong Kong between its return to China in 1997 and 2020, imposing Beijing laws in the city was illegal; protesters complained that the extradition law would have been a loophole around the policy.
In response to the protests, Hong Kong’s local Legislative Council did not pass the extradition law but, in May 2020, Beijing’s National People’s Congress (NPC) passed a “national security” law that definitively eroded “One Country, Two Systems.” The law requires a minimum sentence of ten years in prison for individuals found guilty of sedition, inviting foreign interference, terrorism, or “subversion of state power.”
Wong has yet to face “national security” law charges, but was arrested in September for allegedly wearing a mask during a protest. In December, a Hong Kong court sentenced him to over a year in prison for organizing an “unlawful assembly.”
On Tuesday, that sentence was extended by four months for violating the law against wearing masks in public. He also received extra time on another “unauthorized assembly” charge, according to Hong Kong’s Apple Daily. His alleged violation took place in on the same day the anti-mask law went into effect in October 2019. Defense attorneys argued Wong never disguised his identity — given his high profile — and wore a mask only for a few minutes during remarks to the press to protest the law. At no time were police officers unable to identify him.
The court similarly sentenced longtime dissident and protest organizer Koo Sze Yiu, 74 years old, to five months in prison for the same transgressions. Koo already had ten criminal sentences to his name prior to this latest conviction and is currently battling cancer.
Koo said he would continue his resistance against the Chinese Communist Party after completing his sentence.
“This will not be my last time in jail, there will be a 12th, 13th time, I might even intentionally violate the national security law next time,” Koo said at the sentencing, where he reportedly “wore a celebratory red ribbon flower used in Chinese weddings” and drank beer to commemorate the occasion.
The legality of masks has made for conflicting messages from the local government. Face coverings at protests remain illegal after authorities upheld the ordinance against them at “unlawful” assemblies in April 2020. Hong Kong health officials have encouraged the use of sanitary masks in public, even when admitting they may not have any significant impact on the spread of Chinese coronavirus.
“Hong Kong does not have local cases at all, wearing face masks will not be very effective. Some citizens are worried about invisible [asymptomatic] patients — that’s very personal. The most important thing is to have manners. When you have a cold, cough, or [are] feeling unwell, you have to wear a mask,” former health chief Yeoh Eng-kiong said in May 2020.
“Of course [I] would wear [a mask] when in crowded areas, because citizens would be worried,” Yeoh added, “not because I’m scared. Instead, [I’m] afraid that citizens would think it is not very polite.”
The government of Hong Kong also provided residents free sanitary masks, which would violate the anti-mask law if worn in public.
The Hong Kong Police Department has grumbled against the sanitation measures, saying in a criminal activity update in July that it was hindering the capture of wanted suspects.
“The disobedience to law [sic] among some members of public [sic] is growing, economy is worsening and community-wide mask wearing has enabled criminals to conceal their identities more easily,” the police force complained.
While the memory of the early 2000s SARS outbreak led to many residents opting to wear sanitary masks, the Beijing-controlled Hong Kong government has struggled to convince residents to receive doses of Chinese-made vaccine candidates against the Chinese coronavirus, particularly after a number of suspicious deaths of elderly patients. Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam urged her officials Tuesday to implement “stronger incentives” to convince people to take doses of the available vaccines, expressing frustration with the lack of popular enthusiasm for them.
“What we need now is to promote vaccination in Hong Kong, and since just protecting your own health and loving your family members are not strong enough incentives, then the government has to come up with stronger incentives,” Lam said, “which are important not only for promoting vaccination but to allow Hong Kong to go back to normality in a gradual and orderly manner so that business could continue to operate.”