Hong Kong’s coronavirus response adds fuel to protests


Author: Jeffrey Wasserstrom, UC Irvine

How long will Hong Kong’s protests last? Will Beijing send troops in to quell them? I grew used to being asked these two questions while working on Vigil: Hong Kong on the Brink last year, but by the time the book published in February, a different pair of questions had taken their place. Will big gatherings in Hong Kong start up again once people stop worrying about the spread of the coronavirus? And how will this public health crisis affect Hong Kong’s future?Residents wear facial masks as they march to protest against the government's plan to set up a quarantine site close to their community amid the Wuhan outbreak, in Hong Kong, China 2 February 2020 (Reuters/Tyrone Siu).

The overarching question that hovers behind the two new specific queries is whether Hong Kong is still on the brink in 2020. It appears so. Perhaps even more so than when the movement was at its height last year in terms of media attention, the size of marches and the intensity of street clashes.

Two key considerations led to this conclusion. First, while the protests have become smaller and less frequent, they have continued even amid fears of contagion. Second, as the protests have continued, so have some enduring patterns that have characterised the movement since June 2019: actions are taking place at new locations, affecting new targets and being carried out by new groups.

For example, protests have started taking place in relatively isolated residential neighbourhoods that had not seen street action, clashes between militants and police or thug attacks in 2019. An example of a new target is the torching of buildings in those isolated districts that the authorities had selected as quarantine zones. But residents nearby felt that they lived too close for those districts to be used as quarantine zones, especially without any consultation.

Hospital-based healthcare workers are an example of a new group that is becoming more central to the protests. In late February, they went on strike to express their disagreement with local government policies aimed at dealing with the coronavirus, such as keeping the borders between Hong Kong and mainland China open. They were also upset that their input, as health experts on the frontline of the crisis, was not solicited and were even ignored when they offered it.

The way that Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam and her government have handled the public health crisis has angered many local residents who were previously apolitical.

Both online chatter and the recent protests indicate that the handling of decisions relating to the border and the selection of quarantine sites has rubbed many people the wrong way. Many perceived Lam as more concerned with staying in the good graces of Beijing, rather than truly serving her alleged constituents. More importantly, those who either thought little about Hong Kong’s governance before or assumed that Lam was determined to placate Beijing but felt it was not important, now view the topic as one of great significance.

Although there were many participants in the 2014 Umbrella Movement, its central call for a change in election procedures struck many as an abstract goal. Support for that struggle grew when police used tear gas against protesters in a way that many felt was excessive.

The initial focus of the 2019 protests was a proposed extradition bill that would make it easy for Beijing to ask the Hong Kong authorities to hand people over for trial across the border. This seemed less abstract as it was easy for ordinary Hong Kong residents to imagine doing something that could lead to extradition.

The new movement broke records for crowd size and longevity due to the ramped up police violence and Lam’s refusal to rein in or even investigate the actions of a previously restrained and admired law enforcement entity that seemed increasingly out of control.

One development during the latter half of 2019 was that activists began to refer to the parallels between their struggle and anti-colonial movements. What was often taken for granted and led colonial subjects to rise up in the past and fight for change even against seemingly impossible odds was a sense of outrage that local officials were concerned above all else with staying in the good graces of the metropole, even when disasters hit.

Well before 2020 many Hongkongers viewed their predicament as one of living in a place that was subject to British colonial rule and then became part of a China that behaves like an imperial power. The handling of the coronavirus will not convince all Hong Kong residents to embrace that view, but it will likely trigger perhaps a sizable portion of those who were previously disengaged or hostile to the movement to shift towards activism.

Hong Kong’s officials should have made it clear that they were putting the health of the populace above a desire to please Beijing in this time of crisis. The movement that began last June, while no longer regularly making the front pages, is still very much underway and Hong Kong remains on the brink.

Jeffrey Wasserstrom is Chancellor’s Professor of History at the University of California, Irvine. He is author of Vigil: Hong Kong on the Brink (Columbia Global Reports, 2020).

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