Prominent pro-democracy campaigner Joshua Wong was arrested on Thursday, his third arrest since June of 2019 when he was last released from prison. He was charged with illegal assembly for his alleged participation in an unauthorized protest on October 5 of last year and for allegedly violating a controversial emergency ban on mask wearing that was in effect at the time.
As The New York Times' Elaine Yu reported, the protest on October 5 followed a controversial and unprecedented move by Chief Executive Carrie Lam to use colonial-era emergency powers in the city:
The day before Mr. Wong attended the protest on Oct. 5, the Hong Kong government, using emergency powers, implemented the ban on masks. Protesters had begun wearing face coverings to protect their identities when they marched on the street. And Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing leader, deployed a rarely used colonial-era law in October to ban masks in an attempt to quell the antigovernment protests. But protesters mostly ignored the rule. The ban further inflamed tensions in the city and set off more demonstrations, as well as violent clashes. [Source]
In April, the South China Morning Post's Chris Lau, Jasmine Siu, and Alvin Lum reported that Hong Kong's Court of Appeal had found the blanket government ban on face masks unconstitutional:
A Hong Kong court on Thursday overturned part of an earlier ruling that found the government’s ban on masks unconstitutional, declaring the measure imposed at the height of civil unrest last year valid.
But the Court of Appeal ruled that while it was constitutional for the government to ban the wearing of masks at unauthorised or illegal assemblies, the same was not true for legal demonstrations. Language in the ban granting police the authority to physically remove masks was also unconstitutional, it added. [Source]
For the South China Morning Post on Thursday, Ng Kang-chung and Natalie Wong covered the reaction to Wong's mask charges at a time when mask wearing is mandated by law. They cited Civic Party Chairman Alan Leong Kah-kit's view that “it’s so ridiculous for the government to arrest people over participating in an anti-mask law rally when everyone now in Hong Kong has to wear masks in public places [under coronavirus measures].”
This is the third time Wong has been arrested since June of last year, when he was released from prison after serving time on charges related to his participation in another unauthorized assembly. The other two charges also related to his participation in unauthorized protests, including for taking part in a banned candlelight vigil on June 4 of this year to mark the anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre. 2020 was the first year that the vigil was banned in Hong Kong.
Wong has so far avoided being charged under the controversial new National Security Law. In August, The Financial Times' James Kynge and Nicolle Liu reported that Wong said he expected to be arrested on national security-related charges at any time:
“My arrest seems to be a matter of timing. Time is running out on my personal safety,” Mr Wong told the Financial Times on Thursday.
“Once they arrest me . . . I might be extradited to China immediately,” he added. “Of course, that is the worse scenario. A lot of people ask me: are you ready for it? And I say, of course nobody will be ready for sentencing in a Beijing black jail for ever.” [Source]
The Guardian's Helen Davidson reported that, after he was released on bail later on Thursday afternoon, Wong has encouraged the international community to "focus less on prominent activists such as him and call for the release of the 12 Hongkongers detained in mainland China after allegedly attempting to flee Hong Kong for Taiwan by boat."
Facing max. The penalty of 5yrs in jail for unauthorized assembly and 1yr for wearing a mask, I'm not deterred whenever I think of fellow protestors who are struggling in detention in HK or in Mainland China.
— Joshua Wong 黃之鋒 😷 (@joshuawongcf) September 24, 2020
A protest scheduled for October 1st to coincide with China's National Day and to oppose the detention of the 12 Hongkongers in mainland China is facing a looming ban, allegedly on public health grounds. Although last October's mask ban was issued months before the coronavirus emerged in China and spread across the world, measures since then to combat COVID-19 have frequently intersected with political repression in Hong Kong. Face coverings were banned in the city until the emergence of the coronavirus in January led the government to encourage mask wearing. Police have frequently used social distancing rules as pretexts to pursue demonstrators, and extensions on social distancing measures have repeatedly coincided with key protest dates:
Spot a pattern? The coronavirus is especially potent on politically sensitive dates. pic.twitter.com/jK4j2uYZvH
— Mary Hui (@maryhui) September 22, 2020
Facing a surge of COVID infections in August, the government took the unprecedented step of delaying elections by a year, a move decried by opposition politicians as a way to prevent pro-democracy politicians from gaining a majority in the Legislative Council.