The Hong Kong government's ban on the wearing of masks at public gatherings seems, at best, a half-measure and thus is unlikely to be enough, on its own, to quell what is clearly an orchestrated uprising. The need to do more is palpable, yet Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor clings to the position that further measures are not yet necessary.
Without putting too fine a point on it, Hong Kong is staring at something perilously close to anarchy. It is no exaggeration that ordinary citizens for whose future the rioters claim they are fighting live in daily fear. Few would want to leave home after dark and risk being caught in the middle of violent street clashes. The sheer senselessness of it all is truly scary.
Against this brazen challenge to law and order, anything less than a full-throttle response cannot but scream timidity, if not a dereliction of duty. As lawyer and statesman Cicero from ancient Rome once wrote, salus populi suprema lex, which translates from Latin as "the welfare of the people is the most important law".
What baffles is why Lam and her Executive Council, having decided to brave criticism from the usual suspects and invoke emergency powers, stopped at just imposing the ban.
Why not authorise pre-emptive arrests and detention of known hard-core rioters and the masterminds behind them? Why not expel any foreigners caught instigating or worse, directing rioters if charging them is not an option? And freeze bank accounts suspected of being used to channel money to pay the rioters?
Other immediate steps that can be taken include weeding out fake reporters, clamping down on deliberate misinformation, disabling the platform rioters use to exchange encrypted messages and expediting court hearings. All these are directed at one objective - cripple the rioters and their backers to ensure a speedy return to law and order. They are entirely defensible against the expected carpings of opposition politicians and human rights advocates.
All this is not to suggest that the ban is ill-conceived. It should have some deterrent effect as it takes away the anonymity which gives protesters the false courage to break the law. This may make the less radical among them think twice, especially those with enough sense to know they have a whole future to lose.
Meanwhile, there are two shortcomings which need to be addressed. First, without strict enforcement, the law is just a dead letter and will instead dent the Hong Kong government's credibility over time. But this requires overwhelming numbers of riot police at every flashpoint. The police may not be able to muster that at short notice. Therein lies the weakness - and the rioters know it.
Second, the ban leaves untouched the real culprits, the organisers and financiers who have been lurking in the shadows and are not so stupid as to expose themselves in the frontline. Not bringing them to justice means the initiative remains with them on when to launch the next wave of attacks. Surely this is the lesson from the Occupy Central demonstrations in 2014?
The situation cries out for proactive measures. Thus far, the government remains stuck in a defensive mode, opting to "listen to the people" through dialogue sessions and not do anything that may further raise the ire of the protesters.
In the meantime, the police are run ragged by flash mobs who can decide to strike here, there and everywhere and at any time they choose. How long the police can continue to hold up, in morale and stamina, is anyone's guess.
So why the hesitation still? Fear of damage to Hong Kong's international image? That, alas, is already in tatters. Vacillation and more lawlessness will not help. Is Beijing restraining her hand? Well, not long ago, President Xi Jinping told Hong Kong officials and lawmakers to their face that it was a disgrace if those in a position to do something to restore order chose not to act.
Further public outcry? But so what if there is? Lam's overriding responsibility is to restore order and sanity to Hong Kong, without which all talk of reconciliation, housing reform, job creation and so on is moot. This means taking bold action to shock and awe, not incremental baby steps.
In her own words, there may be just this one chance left for Hong Kong to save itself. She has to take it - now.
Leslie Fong is a former editor of Singapore's The Straits Times
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