Politicising the Mask: Hong Kong vs America


“Pleated Covid mask making – Vicky’s HK pattern – tiny pocket for strip tie or pipe cleaner for nose bridge” by Rain Rabbit is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Elisha Verbes


I have experienced first hand the ways in which Hong Kong and the US are drastically different, but one thing both regions share is the recent politicisation of masks. Having lived in these contrasting places, I’m intrigued by how the different cultures, governments, and social norms have affected people’s attitudes to masks – and ultimately, the attitude and methods towards handling the pandemic. Why did Hong Kong have a ban on masks last year, yet the US still won’t mandate face coverings even after 7 months and over 9 million cases of Covid-19? 


Mask-wearing in Hong Kong

In June of 2019, Hong Kong’s pro-democracy, anti-government protest movement revived with even more momentum than 2014’s 77 day sit-in of Hong Kong’s central downtown district. In short, this movement initially rebooted in response to a proposed law that would allow China to extradite Hong Kong citizens accused of a crime to be tried in China. These protests attracted Hong Kongers from all walks of life who were frustrated by China’s premature encroachment on Hong Kong’s political autonomy and their “One Country, Two Systems” promise. One protest was attended by almost 2 million people, about a quarter of Hong Kong’s entire population of 7.4 million. 


As weeks of mass protests continued, violent clashes with riot police led many protesters to wear masks to protect their face from the teargas and pepper spray, which were used as means to disperse protesters. Fearful of being charged with rioting and unlawful assembly, protesters also wore masks to hide their face from both police footage and Chinese facial recognition technology which could be used against them. In October 2019, Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam enacted an emergency law that banned face masks in any lawful or unlawful public assembly in an attempt to quell the unrest, undermining the anonymity ideology of the movement. This law scared and enraged the protesters because not only would their privacy be invaded, but more importantly, the fact that an executive emergency law like that could be passed could mean that the pro-Beijing Hong Kong government could do all sorts to further impede on Hong Kongers’ freedoms. Many defied the law, making masks a political symbol of the movement. 


Even before the mass protests of 2019, Hong Kongers were accustomed to occasionally wearing face masks, which meant that they had no qualms adopting it as a part of their daily attire at the start of this year when a relatively small coronavirus outbreak emerged there. When Hong Kong was the epicentre of the 2003 SARS epidemic, face masks were widely worn. The somber legacy of SARS led Hong Kongers to self-police themselves and those around them to take small steps to protect themselves and the city against the virus, heightened to the point where individuals have faced stigma and criticism for not wearing a mask in public. 


Other Asian countries also have a history of mask-wearing which has meant the people from those places did not politicise or question masks like in the US. Unlike in the West, masks are not stigmatized and aren’t only reserved for sick people, but worn by many from a socio-cultural standpoint. In Hong Kong and other East Asian countries, face masks are commonly worn when someone has hayfever symptoms of the common cold. This practice is rooted in the idea of protecting others and respecting society. Various influenza epidemics in the last century have caused people in Asian countries to don masks as it decreases air-borne virus transmission. Pre-pandemic, many in East Asia also wore masks to filter out the heavily polluted air, as a fashion accessory, or even to symbolise a “social firewall”  of anonymity when in public. 


Mask-wearing in the US

Unlike in Hong Kong, where as soon as the first coronavirus case emerged almost everyone donned a mask without any government mandate telling them to do so, masks have become hyper-politicised in the US, despite 7 months and over 210,000 deaths later. As with other virus related information, Trump has repeatedly contradicted what the experts have said, such as stating back in April when the CDC revised their guidelines recommending wearing cloth masks, that he would not wear one because it was “voluntary”. The mixed messaging around masks, especially epidemiologists’ dissuasion of buying masks in February, has left many Americans confused and reluctant to follow the changing guidelines. 


The politicization of the pandemic also extends to debates about lockdowns and shutdown economies. Trump’s vocal support of the anti-lockdown protesters in the spring, who were arguing that mask mandates and stay-at-home orders breach the fundamental civil liberties of 

Americans, as well as his promotion of pseudoscientific treatments that had yet to be proven worked, set him up to be widely mistrusted and criticised for his pandemic response (or lack thereof). Because of the anti-mask sentiment which has been fueled by Trump, choosing not to wear one is politically signalling and can lead people to assume your ideologies based on whether your face is covered or not.


The future

As China is increasingly encroaching on Hong Kong’s sovereignty and freedoms through the National Security Law,  I suspect masks will persist far beyond the end of the pandemic. Before Covid suspended the mass protest movement, wearing a mask was a political statement, signifying that you stand with and support the pro-democracy movement. Even though Hong Kong has reopened for the most part, with a total toll of only 5,270 Covid-19 cases as of writing this, masks are still covering Hong Kongers’ faces. Yes, this is a preventative measure against another wave, but I predict that Hong Kongers will wear masks even when Covid is truly eliminated worldwide just to give themselves a sense of anonymity and an everyday act of protest against the surveillance of the authoritarian Chinese regime. Hong Kongers have enthusiastically worn masks throughout their different political and public health struggles, which has helped protect people’s privacy and safety, respectively. 


Meanwhile in the US, 8 months on, and a great deal of evidence that masks are effective, we are still having petty arguments about masks – Trump even mocked Joe Biden at a presidential debate for his consistent mask-wearing. In August, Biden promised that if elected, he would nationally mandate masks. Obviously, an executive order doesn’t guarantee that all will comply, but clear cut messaging could help guide those who are confused about masking up. Regardless of the election result, masks will remain hyper-politicised in the US, along with every other aspect of fighting the virus due to rampant polarization and declining trust in American government and institutions. 


Hong Kong mask-wearing ironically evolved from being illegal in fall 2019, yet just a few months later, it was illegal to not wear one. Because America doesn’t have a history of mask culture like in Asia, in addition to increasing individualism and scientific ignorance, mask-wearing will never be as normalised across the US, much to its peril.