Hong Kong on Friday invoked colonial-era emergency laws and announced that face masks would be banned at demonstrations from Saturday, Reuters reported. The move came after months of increasingly violent pro-democracy protests.

The ban will take effect under the emergency laws that allow authorities to make any regulations they need to in the interest of the public. The Emergency Regulations Ordinance was last used 50 years ago. Under this law, the government can also censor the media, impose curfews and control ports and transport, but Hong Kong’s leader Carrie Lam did not specify if these would follow the mask ban.

Under the new law, anyone with full or partial face coverings, including face paintings, at public gatherings, can be imprisoned for a year and face fines. People who have legitimate needs – religious, health or work reasons – will be allowed to wear masks but they will also have to remove them for identification purposes. Those who refuse a police officer’s orders to remove their facial covering can face six months in jail.

“Almost all protestors wear masks, with the intention of hiding their identity. That’s why they have become more unbridled,” said Lam. “We can’t keep the existing regulations idle and let violence escalate and the situation continue to deteriorate.” Lam said the city was in serious danger but denied that it was under a state of emergency.

“We must save Hong Kong, the present Hong Kong and the future Hong Kong,” she added, according to AP. “We must stop the violence...we can’t just leave the situation to get worse and worse.”

Last week, a pro-democracy protestor was injured after being shot by a police officer with a live bullet. This was the first time a protestor was shot during the unrest that has rocked Hong Kong for several months. Till then, the police forces had used rubber bullets and tear gas. Clashes broke out across Hong Kong on Tuesday as Beijing celebrated the 70th anniversary of the formation of the People’s Republic of China.

The protests had initially been organised to oppose a bill that would have allowed extraditions to China. They have now evolved into a backlash against the city’s government and its political masters in Beijing.

Protests continue

But soon after the announcement, thousands of demonstrators took the streets across the city, with chants such as “You burn with us” and “Hong Kongers revolt”. Banks and shops in the city’s centre shut down early and the protestors burnt Chinese flags.

“The anti-mask law has become a tool of tyranny,” said Samuel Yeung, an 18-year-old university student. “They can make use of the emergency law to enact any policies or laws that the government wants. There’s no rule of law anymore. We can only be united and protest.”

“Will they arrest 100,000 people on the street,” a protestor named Lui asked AP. “The government is trying to intimidate us but at this moment, I don’t think the people will be scared.”

Many experts said the law presented a bad precedent and warned that the law could be impractical. “It is a dangerous first step. If the anti-mask legislation proves to be ineffective, it could lead the way to more draconian measures such as a curfew and other infringement of civil liberties,” said Willy Lam, adjunct professor at the Chinese University.

China praises move

China praised the move and said it was necessary. “The current chaos in Hong Kong cannot continue indefinitely,” Yang Guang, the spokesperson for the Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office of China, said, according to AFP. “An important moment has come for stopping the violence with a clearer attitude and more effective measures.”