Hong Kong has apparently had a ‘good’ corona virus pandemic. Cases reported at a little over 1000 are, for a densely populated area of 8 million, modest. The four deaths arising from this very small indeed. Why might this be? There is no doubt that Hong Kong acted quickly in response to the mainland lockdown of Wu Han and Hu Bei province on 23rd January, which was also the date of the first confirmed case in Hong Kong.
Firstly, there was an early limit on movements from the mainland. A ban on movements from Hubei province and temperature tests were followed by quarantine periods. Six border crossings out of fifteen were closed at the end of January, and another six on 5th February, leaving just one land, one sea and one air entry point. So, very few foreigners and especially no mainlanders. Strong action by the Hong Kong SAR government, then. Except it wasn’t. The government only closed border crossings on 5th February after a four- day strike by public hospital clinical staff who predicted (probably accurately) that there would be a large flow of unwell and at- risk mainlanders crossing the border to get (much better) urgent treatment in Hong Kong. There is some history here: the numbers of very pregnant ladies crossing the border to give birth in Hong Kong is still high despite financial disincentives and the removal of Hong Kong citizenship from those infants born in the territory.
As for restrictions on large gatherings, the government was again indecisive. Holiday and theme parks were closed: bars remained open. A return to school, announced while children were at home for lunar new year holidays, was postponed for a week, then another two weeks, then another two weeks, then until after Easter. Finally, it has been announced that children will start to return in the week commencing 25th May. This staccato response hindered the delivery of good online tuition by schools. Rather more decisive was a total ban on protests. The last major anti-government protest was a march from Central District to Admiralty, where it was forcibly stopped, on Sunday 18th January. This was of course less than a week before lunar new year and the Wu Han lockdown.
It is not difficult to surmise from this that the lockdown had a highly convenient political sub plot. Nonetheless, the potential gravity of the virus, given the tone of the official Xin Hua news agency press releases, was picked up quickly by Hong Kongers. Visits to bars, sports events, workplaces and protests all diminished or stopped. Horse racing, for instance, continued ‘behind closed doors’ – an interesting concept in itself. Hong Kongers are used to wearing masks, for instance because of SARS in 2003, and are generally a compliant community. However, face masks had been banned in October 2019 because of the protests so the government had to address its somewhat contradictory position.
And now, while the world is dealing with the Chinese virus, the Chinese Communist Party has moved on Hong Kong. This has not been by a single strike, but by a series of opportunist moves.
The banning of large gatherings was a good political opportunity, and acted as a way of suppressing the protest movements, which all but disappeared as a result. Another opportunity, then, for the Hong Kong SAR executive was to arrest many protest leaders (this time the older generation, rather than the younger). 15 pro democracy activists were arrested on 18th April. Police used coronavirus laws to justify the use of pepper spray at a 300 person – socially distanced!- flashmob singing protest on 1st May.
But more sinister is the change of emphasis in Beijing. Firstly, the mainland’s presence in Hong Kong was upgraded via its liaison office and Hong Kong affairs office, which now very vocally claim a ‘right and responsibility’ over Hong Kong’s affairs. Even the Hong Kong government suggested that this could be interference – at least for a few hours, until an additional and hasty press release was prepared.
A week later, China prosecuted a Belizean for interfering in Hong Kong affairs. That’s like Italy prosecuting a German for interfering in France. In the same week, the affairs office publicly demanded an opposition lawmaker resign. That’s like USA demanding the resignation of a Canadian MP. All this in April.
And in May, no let up. Protests will return and the proposed post virus key date for major protest is July 1st, handover day. Last year some celebrations were cancelled because of protests. This year, handover day will in effect be the start of the legco election campaign. The election takes place in the autumn and the pro democrats are seeking an effective blocking minority, the best they can achieve under the Beijing loaded system. The stakes are higher than last year, and Beijing knows this. Last week, the liaison office warned, again publicly and via the South China Morning Post, ‘that Hong Kong will have no future if radical anti-government protesters return to chaos and violence’.
Finally, in advance of the current National Peoples congress in Beijing, the Communist Party has entirely broken cover. They now propose a national security law which entirely undermines the Sino-UK treaty provision of ‘one country, two systems’ and which will be imposed on Hong Kong by Beijing. That’s like Westminster unilaterally taking back devolved powers to Holyrood. It is blatant, has no basis in law and signals the end of Hong Kong’s relative freedoms, rule of law and status as a financial hub. The response from Hong Kong’s Chief Executive has been craven, Carrie Lam describing the proposed law as ‘neutral’. The response from the financial markets was a drop of over 5% on a day that other markets were flat: hardly neutral.
The UK has more of a role in this than perhaps it would wish. Since Sino-British handover treaty, at the insistence of the Chinese, had only two parties then it is the UK which has rights under it rather than Hong Kong. It is proper that they are now enforced through international courts.
Beijing denies the purpose of the new law. Artist and China exile Ai Wei Wei’s view is simple ‘by nature they cannot reveal the truth’.
© Hongkonger 2020
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