Hong Kong protests during coronavirus outbreak
Office workers and protesters gather during a pro-democracy demonstration in a mall in the central district of Hong Kong on February 21, 2020. Photo by ISAAC LAWRENCE / AFP.
Hong Kong

Hong Kong Protesters Think the Coronavirus Outbreak Could Help Their Cause

To pro-democracy protesters, the coronavirus is both a blessing and a curse.
27 February 2020, 5:20am

The novel coronavirus (COVID-19), has infected more than 80,000 people and caused 2,700 deaths, mostly in China’s Hubei Province. People everywhere are worried as the outbreak develops into a pandemic, not the least in Hong Kong, where 85 cases have been confirmed and two people have died. But to the Hong Kong protest movement that rocked the city last year, the virus is both a curse and a blessing.

More anti-government backlash in Hong Kong

The coronavirus outbreak has, naturally, become a cause for concern among protesters. They worry that the world might forget about their mission because media attention has shifted to China and the outbreak, as fewer people gather for mass protests in the streets of Hong Kong. With China just next door, they also worry that, if more drastic measures are not taken to prevent further spread of the virus, Hong Kong may be next in line for a massive outbreak. Many fear that it could lead to something similar to the 2003 SARS epidemic that killed over 200 people in Hong Kong.

“I hope everyone will remember the people who sacrificed themselves for this movement,” 19-year-old student protester Lawrence told VICE. “It’s okay to focus on the coronavirus right now, but please don’t forget about the people who died because of the CCP’s (Chinese Communist Party) tyranny.”

Peggy, 18, another student protester, said that their priority at the moment is to keep everyone safe. Both students believe that in the long run, the outbreak will make the Chinese government weaker.

“If you ask me, it will benefit the protests,” Peggy said.

Lawrence agreed, saying that the CCP's failure to handle the outbreak properly only reignited their anger and cemented the movement’s purpose. Many protesters see the spread of COVID-19 as a humiliation to the CCP, which has struggled to contain it.

Public trust in Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing government has also plummeted, even among older generations who have historically been loyal to the establishment.

One elderly woman went viral on social media last week after she was interviewed by local TV stations about her complaints.

“I had high hopes for (Hong Kong Chief Executive) Carrie Lam, and that’s why I took a photo with her. Now I think she’s the worst of all the previous Chief Executives. Why does the wellbeing of Hong Kong have to depend on approval from China?” she said. “Politics? Fine. But our wellbeing? I think it’s ridiculous. I’ll delete the photo we took together.”

One person joked on Reddit that, “there is nothing more painful than an Asian mom deleting you from her phone.”

Lam has repeatedly refused to close the three remaining border crossings between Hong Kong and mainland China. This led to a strike that included more than 3,000 medical workers and lasted for just under a week. They protested based on the belief that the government would rather bow to Beijing than save the lives of ordinary Hong Kongers. Lam maintained that a full border closure would be “discriminatory” and “impractical,” although 10 out of 13 crossings have now been shut down.

“It shows us that Carrie Lam doesn’t treat Hong Kongers as her people,” said Peggy. “It shows us that Hong Kongers are less important than those in the mainland, and that we are not served by the Chinese or Hong Kong government.”

hong kong coronavirus effect

A man wearing a protective face mask waits at a bus stop in Hong Kong on February 22, 2020. Photo by VIVEK PRAKASH / AFP

Hong Kongers are also angry that the government has failed to provide basic supplies to its people, such as hand sanitizers, soaps, face masks, rice, and meat.

One man’s story caused further anti-government sentiment after he was seen crying on television, lamenting that he once again was not lucky enough to buy masks for himself and his family, after standing in line for many hours for the umpteenth time.

Protesters are hopeful that this discontent can transform into support for the pro-democracy movement.

“The support of the elderly is important to us. They might start to understand why the protesters do what we do and think of us as victims, rather than as destructive perpetrators,” said Peggy.

“If they don’t defend the government, the dissenting voice will be louder, and we’ll be more united.”

They hope the outbreak can mark the beginning of the end for the CCP’s almost century-long rule over China as authorities face criticism for their response to the outbreak.

Victoria Tin-bor Hui, an associate professor at the Department of Political Science at Notre Dame University, said that the public’s anger over the coronavirus is largely aimed at Lam’s inaction.

Lam initially refused to evacuate Hong Kongers from Wuhan. She is also criticised for removing the toll fee for small vehicles crossing the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge, which connects China with Hong Kong, to encourage travel by that route. The bridge has been underused since it opened and efforts to attract more travellers had been planned even before the coronavirus outbreak, but Lam’s timing came off as irresponsible.

“The government is trying to make Hong Kong an exit option for Beijing’s elites. Everyone can see that, even the most politically unaware can see it,” Hui told VICE.

Labor strikes have historically been looked down on by the Hong Kong public, and few workers have dared to rally out of fear for retribution. But the coronavirus outbreak has changed that mentality, Hui said. More than 80 percent of Hong Kongers supported the medical workers’ strike, according to a Public Opinion Research Institute poll.

“The spread of the coronavirus handed the medical workers the perfect reason to strike,” Hui said. “Especially because many people were already very upset that the medical workers were not given the same gear as the police, who have faced criticism for beating people up.”

hong kong coronavirus effect

Residents walk through the courtyard of a public housing estate while wearing masks as a precautionary measure against the spread of the COVID-19 novel coronavirus in Hong Kong on February 23, 2020. Photo by VIVEK PRAKASH / AFP

If this halting support for Lam’s government sticks with citizens in the voting booths during the Legislative Council (LegCo) elections in September, the pro-democracy wing could win significantly more influence, although only 35 of 70 members are elected directly by the Hong Kong people. The remaining seats are chosen by special interest groups and business communities — the so-called functional constituencies, such as the medicinal industry — which are often linked to the pro-Beijing political wing. The pro-Beijing wing currently holds 43 seats, of which 19 were directly elected by the public. Of the 35 members elected by the functional constituencies, only six are pro-democracy.

The people of Hong Kong sent a strong message to Lam and Beijing when they won a landslide victory and claimed nearly 90 percent of available seats during last year’s local elections. This tripled the number of pro-democracy members in the city’s District Councils. The protest movement hopes to repeat that success in the LegCo elections come September. If they do, it could also influence the nomination for the position of Chief Executive when Lam’s current term ends in 2022.

However, this ambition is optimistic, at best. Hui warned that the Chinese government is working vigorously to prevent this from happening.

“You cannot always reproduce the same results because the other side will be more prepared,” she said. “Now that Beijing knows what could happen, obviously they’re going to mobilise all their resources to do whatever it takes to win the elections in September.”

And if history is any indication, it looks like the Chinese government will succeed. In the 23 years since the 1997 Handover, Hong Kong’s Chief Executive has always been pro-Beijing.

But can more mainland support for the pro-democracy movement help?

Gaining support from the mainland

Support for Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement has increased among mainland Chinese citizens since the coronavirus outbreak started.

“We are all victims, but we are not innocent. Hong Kongers have been reminding us, but we just laughed at them,” one Chinese citizen said on social media platform Weibo.

To many in Hong Kong and mainland China, the death of Li Wenliang, one of the first doctors to warn against COVID-19, stands as a testament to the consequences of the CCP’s commitment to protecting its image. In early January, Li was forced by the Chinese police to sign a letter which stated that he was guilty of spreading “untrue speech” after he voiced concern about the virus to colleagues and in online chat rooms.

Lawrence, the 19-year-old student protester, thinks Li’s death could open the eyes of some Chinese citizens to the adverse effects of the CCP’s system of social control.

Many believe that coronavirus deaths could have been avoided if only the CCP was more transparent. An earlier plea for international help and attention could have prevented the outbreak from becoming so widespread, a sentiment many on social media have voiced out.

Li’s death triggered a pro-free speech movement on Weibo, with thousands criticising the CCP for silencing those who warned them about the coronavirus during the early days of the outbreak. A hashtag that translates to #wewantfreedomofspeech garnered more than 2 million hits before it was censored. Some also called for a #ChineseRevolutionNow, a reference to the Hong Kong protests.

One netizen said that the CCP’s response to the outbreak had fundamentally changed the way they saw both the Chinese government and Hong Kong’s protesters.

“In June, the Hong Kong protests looked like a joke. Now, we are a joke. We don’t even have the courage to fight back, we can only tap our keyboards,” the post reads.

Another poster said: “I’m thinking about how angry I was with the Hong Kong protests a few months ago. I know my country isn’t good, but I never thought I would be this disappointed. Maybe I’ll have to get used to this. Do I even have the right to choose?”

Hui said that people in both Hong Kong and China have generally been OK with punishing those who reveal state secrets, even if they didn’t actively support it. But the coronavirus issue is different.

“As soon as people realised that public health also counts as a state secret, that changed,” she said.

This newfound support from China means a lot to Hong Kong’s protesters, however small the movement may be. It reassures them that their efforts don’t fall on deaf ears, said Peggy, the 18-year-old student protester.

hong kong people facemask

People wearing protective face masks visit the lookout of Victoria Peak in Hong Kong on February 25, 2020. Photo by ISAAC LAWRENCE / AFP.

“If they oppose the government along with us Hong Kongers, it will be a big success for the protests,” she said.

“A lot of protesters have been beaten and seriously hurt, and some were possibly even killed or raped,” Peggy added. “We were afraid that those sacrifices would be meaningless in the end, so it means a lot to us to know that we’re actually making an impact on the world.”

Hui said that the discontent in China will have long-lasting effects on Chinese people’s faith in the CCP. The party has long depended on the blind trust of the Chinese people to sustain their legitimacy in the public’s eyes, but the coronavirus outbreak will inevitably erode that trust, she said, even if many continue to support the party.

“The virus really showed people that the government is incompetent, and the coronavirus is really going to hurt the Chinese economy,” she said.

“That’s why they’re cracking down so hard on people, even on ordinary citizens who are complaining that they have no treatment, or even that they’re dying. And people see the officials who visit Wuhan wearing full protective gear, and that contrast is just horrible.”

To the Hong Kong protest movement, this “shared anger” is important because it establishes a bond of sympathy between them and people in the mainland. But Hui thinks that it is unlikely for the discontent to amount to any radical change in China, where people have no means of organising against the government.

“The idea that the CCP will eventually collapse because of this is still very far-fetched,” said Hui. "Many people are still sharing their grievances privately, not disclosing them online or in public. It takes a lot for people to overcome their fear of speaking up in a country like China.”

“So the collapse of the Chinese Communist Party?” she added, “I wouldn't count on it.”

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