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China says Hong Kong can't overturn ban on masks at protests

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Image: A protester is detained by riot police while attempting to leave the
Riot police detain a protester who was trying to leave Hong Kong Polytechnic University during clashes on Tuesday, Nov. 18, 2019. -
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Thomas Peter
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The Chinese government slapped down Hong Kong's highest court on Tuesday, contending that it doesn't have the authority to strike down a law banning protesters from wearing masks.

The High Court ruled Monday that emergency laws that prohibited the wearing of masks at protests were unconstitutional, saying they were "incompatible" with the legal structure that was established when Britain returned Hong Kong to China in 1997.

It took less than a day for Beijing to declare the ruling invalid. A spokesman for the Legislative Affairs Commission of the National People's Congress said the equivalent of Hong Kong's constitution "can only be judged and decided by the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress," Reuters and Hong Kong media outlets reported.

Separately, the South China Morning Post quoted a spokesman for China's Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office as saying the High Court ruling would have a "serious and negative sociopolitical impact."

Xinhua, the official Chinese news agency, confirmed both statements.

For more than five months, hundreds of thousands of demonstrators, many of them wearing masks to shield their identities, have taken to the streets, initially to protest a proposed law that would have allowed Hong Kong to extradite criminal suspects to mainland China.

The measure was withdrawn in September, but the demonstrations have continued as a broader protest of China's control over the island.

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The dispute over masks came as about 100 protesters remained holed up in Hong Kong Polytechnic University on Tuesday as police laid siege to the campus.

Police surrounded the area Sunday, using water cannons, tear gas and heavy vehicles to hold back the protesters in a dramatic escalation of the demonstrations.

Hundreds of people were evacuated from the scene overnight in negotiations between university officials and police, local news outlets reported. Hong Kong's largest English-language newspaper, The Standard, reported that others used ropes to rappel from a footbridge to the street, where they were rushed away on motorcycles.

The Hong Kong Red Cross said Tuesday that it treated about 40 people at the university, some of them suffering fractures and head and burn injuries. Twenty-six people were taken to hospitals, it said.

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Chris Tang, Hong Kong's new police commissioner, said in an interview that police alone couldn't end the violence.

Tang, who took office Tuesday, succeeding Stephen Lo, said in an interview with the South China Morning Post that the spreading violence was coming "very close to terrorism" and said everyday residents were partly to blame through their silence and tolerance.

"If everyone had come out earlier to condemn the violence, society would not have turned into this state in five months," Tang said.

"I totally disagree that our officers are out of control and have used excessive force," he said. "We use force when there is violence. Many of our officers have been brutally attacked. They [draw their guns] to protect themselves, not to suppress the crowd."

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