HONG KONG — As the government tries to quell increasingly violent protests, Hong Kong’s embattled leader on Friday invoked emergency powers to ban face masks, deploying a rarely used law that could inflame tensions and tar the city’s reputation as an safe, open hub for finance and tourism.
The decision by the city’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, reflects the growing intensity of the monthslong movement and the pressure the government faces from Beijing to take action.
Earlier this week, tens of thousands of protesters spread out across the city in mass demonstrations designed to overshadow a politically sensitive anniversary in China. The protests quickly turned into violent clashes, including the shooting of an 18-year-old student by a police officer.
But the decision by Mrs. Lam could backfire, inciting a combative core of protesters and prompting more confrontations. Face masks are a common feature of the protests, both for security and safety.
Many protesters wear gas masks and respirators, as do first aid responders and journalists, to protect themselves from tear gas. Some wear them to protect their identity.
In announcing the ban, Mrs. Lam said: “We must prevent Hong Kong, and prevent students, from taking things into their own hands and recover Hong Kong’s future.”
As word of the ban spread on Friday during lunchtime, hundreds of people, many wearing face masks, blocked a major road in downtown Hong Kong. They chanted antigovernment slogans and called on Mrs. Lam to change course. More demonstrations are planned for the evening.
“This ban is ridiculous,” said Wilson Lee, a 29-year-old paralegal. “It just shows the government’s incompetence and refusal to listen to any of our concerns. They are just making things worse.”
The ban on face masks will take effect at midnight Friday. It will apply to all public gatherings.
Ronny Tong, a member of the Executive Council, the top advisory body to the chief executive, said on Thursday that he had been wary of any move to invoke the emergency regulations because he feared it would bring a stigma to Hong Kong internationally. But he said he would “reluctantly endorse” a face mask ban as an alternative to a general curfew, an idea recently suggested by some pro-Beijing hard-liners.
Jasper Tsang, the founder of the biggest pro-Beijing political party and the president of the legislature until 2016, said that there had been deep divisions at the highest levels of the Hong Kong government for many weeks on whether to go ahead with the ban.
“The government has been weighing the pros and cons, and those who are against it argue it wouldn’t help much,” he said, while adding that advocates for the idea saw it as a possible way to curb violence.
Opponents of a face mask ban made two arguments, Mr. Tsang said. One was that it could be hard to enforce. France has such a ban, but it has not prevented many so-called yellow vest protesters from wearing them anyway.
Imposing a face mask ban could also hurt the government’s effort to persuade Hong Kong’s public, its tourists and the international business community that most of the city is safe most of the time, he said.
But while the government was deeply split on the issue through Tuesday, the escalation of violence on Tuesday night, including the first police shooting of a protester, left the authorities reconsidering every option, Mr. Tsang said.
“It appears we need more effective, more stringent measures,” he said.
116 Days of Hong Kong Protests. How Did We Get Here?
The protests started as peaceful marches and rallies against an unpopular bill. Then came dozens of rounds of tear gas and a government that refused to back down.
Mrs. Lam’s use of emergency powers allowed her to bypass the legislature, and underlines how her government and the police force may have run out of ways to restore order without limiting some civic freedoms. The measure alarmed some observers who feared she might exercise other emergency powers such as imposing curfews, muzzling the press, deporting foreigners and suspending various democratic rights.
“For the international community, any kind of emergency powers will send warning bells,” said Simon Young, a professor at the University of Hong Kong Law School. “Although it may start out with an incremental measure, then nothing’s to stop another measure from being added, and further measures from being added.”
For the protesters, the masks carry symbolic and practical significance. Many have become fearful they could be identified through photos and surveillance equipment then targeted for retaliation. Few people attend mass gatherings without one, even during peaceful marches and demonstrations. When Mrs. Lam held her first town hall with residents last week, many members of the audience who confronted her with difficult questions wore masks, showing their fear of retaliation.
Reporting was contributed by Elaine Yu, Ezra Cheung, Javier Hernández and Tiffany May.