I’m inclined to view the mask ban as a high risk/high reward gamble by Beijing. I say Beijing instead of Lam because I don’t think she’s calling important shots like this anymore. The reward they’re hoping for is to introduce enough risk in participation in protests that peacenik ‘woleifei’1 protesters stay home, fearing a possible one-year prison sentence. The fear they intend to instill is both direct and indirect. Nobody thinks that the Hong Kong Police Force (HKPF) is capable of arresting everyone wearing a mask, but making a few dozen mask-related arrests in the next few days could have a massive chilling effect.
If the ban is arbitrarily enforced later, arresting people weeks or months after the ‘crime,’ many participants will begin to worry that maybe they didn’t “get away with it” as they might have assumed. Turnout numbers have a network effect on the risks posed to all participants because there’s safety in numbers. But the opposite is also true. There’s a threshold in which there are too few people out on the streets to assemble for more than half an hour before HKPF ‘Raptors’ make everyone flee. Beijing is hoping this mask ban will do exactly that: protests winding down because too few people are willing to risk arrest to show up.
I think people are overly downplaying the possibility this works, but there are two reasons it will likely backfire. The first is that I don’t think HKPF tactics are well-suited to making the kind of arrests, or in large enough numbers, to instill fear. They would need to split into small groups roaming the periphery to make the kinds of arrests I worry about, which they actively avoid right now because one of their most dangerous problems are police getting separated individually or in small groups. As I’ve pointed out elsewhere, nearly every time HKPF officers have pulled guns (and now shoot protesters) have been situations like this. In response, they launch clearance raids together as much as possible and arrest as a mob – often with 4-6 cops holding down non-resisting arrested protesters.
They would need to dramatically change tactics and strategies to make full use of what this ban allows for. I’m doubtful that this organization can learn and adapt quickly. Failing to scare people will only amplify a more structural problem: since this crisis started with the rush to pass the Extradition Bill, every escalation by the government has been met with escalation on the street. The most prominent example is the sequence of events in mid-June that transformed the situation into one of the largest peaceful protests in the world in the span of a week.
An estimated one million people marched on Sunday, June 9th wherein Carrie Lam informed us she planned to proceed as if nothing had changed. We came out to block legislators from a reading of the Extradition Bill amendment on Wednesday, June 12th when HKPF “Raptors” cleared Harcourt Road with tear gas and rubber bullets. Lam ‘paused’ the bill the following Friday evening, but an estimated two million people showed up to march on Sunday, June 16th, because this wasn’t just about the Extradition Bill anymore, and few trusted her.
The same dynamics have played out between HKPF and frontline protesters. ‘Yungmo’ frontliners responded to increasingly draconian clearance operations by escalating first with bricks, then Molotov cocktails, which was eventually followed by lighting barricades on fire. When the government weaponized one of the protester’s best assets, the MTR, yungmo2 responded by vandalizing the stations and now routinely set fire to station entrances. The initial response to criminalizing ubiquitous face masks, a tool even woleifei protesters use to protect themselves from tear gas and doxxing, was to rhetorically upgrade ‘The Revolution of Our Times’3 to a ‘revolt’ 4
The most worrying prospect is that the mask ban does get a lot of arrested, but it radicalizes more people than it scares. I sense that this is already happening. The nearly two thousand arrests to date have taken a significant number of the July-August frontliners out of action, compelling younger and inexperienced woleifei participants to pick up the yungmo banner. Equally worrying is that the government is responding to increasingly normalized and spreading yungmo tactics of vandalism and arson with essentially shutting down the city.
The entire MTR network was shut down last night for the first time ever (for something other than a typhoon), which was repeated today. High traffic pedestrian walkways are being shuttered for no other reason than to inconvenience the public. Now stores are closing, food is running out of shelves, and there is a nascent run on banks as people rush to withdraw cash. It’s difficult to imagine where we go from here if this gamble backfires. Will the city remain on lockdown throughout this 3-day holiday weekend if Saturday night looks like Friday night did? What happens on Tuesday if the mask ban, like every other idea they’ve come up with, only makes everything a lot worse?