The Pandemic Is Cover for a Crackdown in Hong Kong

The gap between the mainland and the city is closing fast.

Chief Executive Carrie Lam speaks during a press conference at the government headquarters in Hong Kong on April 22.
Chief Executive Carrie Lam speaks during a press conference at the government headquarters in Hong Kong on April 22. Anthony Wallace/AFP via Getty Images

When COVID-19 broke out in China this year, Hong Kong was on the front lines. It was not an unfamiliar place for the city that weathered the SARS epidemic in 2003. But with virus news now dominating headlines, it is easy to forget that it was only a few months ago that headlines in Hong Kong were dominated by the protests that consumed the city for seven months last year.

The Hong Kong community’s automatic avoidance of public gatherings in times of epidemic meant that major street protests in Hong Kong essentially ended in January, yet support for the protests remains strong. A poll conducted for Reuters by the Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute in late March showed that 58 percent of respondents remained in favor of the protests and only 28 percent against. As a result, activism and dissent continue in Hong Kong, and while it has been taking a different form in the coronavirus era, the legacy of the 2019 protests continues to influence events in 2020.

At the same time, Beijing has taken advantage of global distraction to begin taking retribution for Hong Kong’s open defiance of China’s rule last year. Recent weeks have seen bellicose rhetoric from Beijing and Hong Kong leaders, castigating pro-democracy legislators for filibustering the work of the legislature and reiterating the need for Hong Kong to introduce controversial anti-subversion legislation. Last weekend, a sweeping mass arrest campaign saw 15 pro-democracy leaders detained for their part in last year’s protests, including such senior figures such as Martin Lee, the founder of the Democratic Party, and Albert Ho, a former chair of that party.

The arrests have confirmed the main legacy of 2019: the sense that the Hong Kong government is no longer acting in the best interests of its people. The protest movement itself began with an example of this writ large: a proposed law that would have enabled the extradition of criminal suspects from Hong Kong to face trial in mainland Chinese courts. The proposal was seen as a betrayal of the public trust, an act solely in the interests of Beijing and contrary to the interests of the Hong Kong people. Hong Kong was returned to Chinese sovereignty under the “one country, two systems” formula and Hong Kongers given a “high degree of autonomy.” However, recent years have seen that autonomy steadily eroded, and many saw the extradition bill as yet another attack on the integrity of “one country, two systems.”

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As the protests developed into a monthslong pro-democracy movement, and the government remained intransigent, Beijing mobilized various public institutions in Hong Kong to support the government line and oppose the protesters. From the police force to the MTR (operator of the city’s subway system), from the Airport Authority and Hong Kong’s flag-carrier airline, Cathay Pacific, to the city’s largest bank, HSBC, all were pressed into service by Beijing and forced to publicly take a stand against the protests. The result was a collapse of public trust in these institutions whose identity had hitherto been closely tied to that of the city and on which citizens relied in their day-to-day lives.

This destruction of institutional trust has colored reactions to the government’s management of the coronavirus and led to something of a paradoxical situation: Hong Kong has been among the world leaders in controlling the virus—Hong Kong, a city of over 7 million people, has recorded just over 1,000 cases and only four coronavirus-related deaths—yet Hong Kongers overwhelmingly credit themselves, rather than the government, with that victory. A poll conducted by the Chinese University of Hong Kong for the South China Morning Post revealed that 72 percent of respondents agreed with the statement “If Hong Kong avoids a large-scale epidemic, it will be due to the community response.” Only 24 percent of respondents agreed that the government should take the credit.

It is true that one of the legacies of the SARS epidemic of 2003 was a high level of community awareness: Hong Kong has good public hygiene, face masks are de rigueur every flu season, and woe betide anyone who coughs on public transport. But SARS also meant that the city’s health care administrators had a tried-and-tested playbook when the novel coronavirus reared its head. The hospital system was well prepared to handle virus cases, and the government implemented vigorous testing, contract tracing, and quarantine arrangements, all of which have helped contain the spread of the virus.

But the administration’s notoriously poor communication skills meant that even this positive outcome became a public relations disaster. The government mismanaged messaging around virus containment measures and mask-wearing. Press conferences became a fiasco, with the public making a game of observing when Chief Executive Carrie Lam and her cabinet members failed to wear masks or donned them incorrectly. Lam was also regarded as being overly deferential to Beijing in managing the closure of the border with the mainland.

The virus also added fuel to the already smoldering anti-mainland sentiment, which on occasion has manifested in ugly xenophobia. There were reports of Hong Kong restaurants refusing to serve customers speaking Mandarin Chinese—local Hong Kongers speak the Cantonese dialect—and calls for closure of the mainland border were often phrased in racist terms. “Save Hong Kong, ban Chinese tourists now” and “Say no to China locusts” read some signs at a protest in the central business district in February.

The fraught issue of the mainland border became the center of a conflict in which the legacy of 2019 loomed large. During the 2019 protests, general strikes were called on in an attempt to place pressure on the government. While some of these strike actions were partially successful—a general strike on Aug. 5, for example, succeeded in shutting down the city for a day—the strikes did not attract a critical mass.

The largest labor group in Hong Kong is the pro-Beijing Federation of Trade Unions, which, while a genuine labor organization and not a mere Communist Party front like unions in the mainland, was nevertheless not going to support an anti-government strike. This constraint did not escape the attention of activists. In the months following the strike, a wave of new, independent unions were formed, not only to protect labor rights and worker welfare but also as a platform for resistance against the authorities.

One of those newly formed unions represented employees of the government’s Hospital Authority. In February, in the early stages of the coronavirus outbreak, that union, the Hospital Authority Employees Alliance, called a strike demanding that the Hong Kong government close the borders with the mainland to prevent imported cases of infection. The union said the strike was necessary to protect the health and safety of health care sector workers, but it also clearly had a political agenda in its attempt to put pressure on the government to change its policy.

If any test case was needed for Hong Kong’s new union movement, it quickly proved its effectiveness. Shortly after the strike began, Lam announced that she would close down most ports of entry to the mainland and imposed a mandatory quarantine for any mainland arrivals. The public remained convinced that the community had yet again come to Hong Kong’s rescue, forcing the government to act.

A call to arms that emerged during the 2019 protests—“Save our own Hong Kong”—encapsulates this self-help response of the Hong Kong community. When the government has lost the public trust but there is no mechanism to vote it out, the community must take action itself. And in the face of the coronavirus, it has been doing just that.

Political parties and other civil society groups have contributed to the effort: In the face of a surgical mask shortage in the early stages of the virus outbreak, the pro-democracy party Demosisto sourced 100,000 masks from the United States, which were distributed to those in need. Local pro-democracy district councilors, elected in a landslide during council elections last November, have been conducting community education programs on the virus and distributing masks and other essential goods to constituents.

Hong Kong has a robust civil society: a fiercely independent media, unafraid to hold public officials to account; academic freedom, with leading academics offering public critiques of government policy; and outspoken medical professionals actively sharing their advice and opinions directly with the community. It is a civil society that Hong Kongers are justly proud of and that contrasts sharply with what they see when they look across the border at the fate of whistleblowing doctors and outspoken citizen journalists on the mainland.

Yet, with last weekend’s arrests, and the prospect of more arrests to come in connection with the 2019 protests as Beijing seeks to tighten its grip on Hong Kong, the gap between the “two systems” seems to be closing.

It is precisely this contrast driving the development of a distinct Hong Kong identity that lies at the heart of political protest in the city. With public discontent still high and the legacy of 2019 continuing to breed new methods of resistance, after the coronavirus threat has passed, 2020 may see Hong Kong facing yet another summer of discontent.

Antony Dapiran is a Hong Kong-based writer and lawyer and the author of City of Protest: A Recent History of Dissent in Hong Kong.