The pandemic and political changes in Hong Kong
Updated: Dec 8, 2020
Apple Daily 28 November 2020 by Benny Tai Yiu-Ting (Formating added).
It has been nearly a year since the new coronavirus epidemic broke out. Recently a new wave of Covid infections has emerged, and it is set to continue to affect the lives of people around the world.
If a vaccine can be made available in large amounts in the second quarter of 2021, the pandemic is likely to come under control and people’s lives can go back to normal. Nonetheless, because of the onslaught of the pandemic, global politics, the global economy, social landscapes and social order are all likely to undergo profound changes.
Whether governments can effectively respond to the pandemic, which has severely affected people’s lives, has become an important benchmark for people to judge their governments.
In places with democracy, governments faring badly in the pandemic can be punished by people through elections, and officials found guilty of dereliction of duties will have to step down.
But in autocratic countries, even if the authorities have failed to handle the health crisis properly, they can use the pandemic to their advantage, justifying moves to step up greater control over people on the pretext of the pandemic.
Hong Kong is the best example.
Before the pandemic, Carrie Lam’s government had been on precarious grounds due to more than half a year of street clashes related to the anti-extradition movement that erupted in mid-2019.
In the District Council elections in November last year, the pro-democracy camp won a landslide victory, securing over 80 percent of the seats. Leveraging the win, democrats came up with the “35+” plan, whereby they hoped the pro-democracy bloc could seize more than half of the 70 Legislative Council (LegCo) seats, thus boosting supervision over the chief executive. Efforts were made to coordinate different factions within the camp.
But as with many parts of the world, the unexpected outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic has impeded Hong Kong’s political development.
Protests banned and democrats arrested
While the outbreak has caught Lam’s administration off guard, it has also given some breathing space for Lam’s beleaguered administration.
In the name of fighting the virus, all gatherings on the streets of Hong Kong are banned. Hongkongers have a strong sense of civility. They would clean up rubbish after a street protest. Although they know that the Lam’s government is taking advantage of the pandemic to crack down on protests, the majority of Hongkongers have suspended street protests for the sake of everybody.
Putting up resistance to the authorities calls for a continuous momentum. In a leaderless movement, when more and more people stop taking to the streets, the risk for individual protesters will increase sharply and other people will also quit reluctantly. When this happens, street protests will gradually fade out and it will get harder to mobilize people to take to the streets.
Without street-level resistance, Lam’s administration and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) that backs her from behind can make counterattacks.
At present, Western countries are busy dealing with the pandemic and have no time to demand the CCP to take responsibility for causing the outbreak of the pandemic. Even though they are concerned about the situation in Hong Kong, the sanctions they have imposed are limited.
It is as against this backdrop that the CCP is speeding up its pace to implement “one country, one system” on Hong Kong.
With the National Security Law, enacted in Hong Kong in July, the CCP has established in Hong Kong an authoritarian legal order, defining crimes with ambiguous legal provisions. It circumvented the city’s legislature in setting a law enforcement institution. It even delegates individual judges to deal with related court cases.
The CCP’s aim is to deter all opposition forces in Hong Kong.
Recently, numerous pro-democracy activists have been arrested and charged. The chilling effect is palpable.
Lam’s government has also postponed the LegCo election by at least a year citing the pandemic. Later the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress passed a decision empowering the chief executive to disqualify LegCo members on grounds that they have violated national security. The decision prompted pro-democracy legislators to resign from LegCo en masse in a move that has greatly decreased the space for the pro-democracy camp to put up resistance on the LegCo front.
Even if they secure a landslide victory in the next LegCo election, pro-democracy legislators may not be able to have enough control of LegCo.
So it seems the streets of Hong Kong and LegCo have quietened down. Besides, the CCP and Lam’s government have apparently used the pandemic to their advantage, overcome the difficult situation facing them for more than a year and deterred Hong Kong’s opposition.
But is it really the case?
Lam’s administration has mishandled the pandemic, in that it only takes into account the interest of mainlanders at the expense of Hongkongers’ worries.
The government failed to close the border timely, which is why the epidemic spread to Hong Kong at the beginning of the outbreak. This is something Hong Kong people will not forget. In fact, government policies in general are in the same vein - they do not give priority to Hong Kong.
The latest policy address claims that integration between Hong Kong and the mainland will bring new opportunities for Hong Kong, when in fact it is all about depleting Hong Kong’s political, economic, legal, social and cultural resources so as to help promote the mainland’s growth.
Hong Kong people can see that clearly.
Hong Kong to be implicated in colossal post-Covid changes
The CCP and Lam’s government have still not responded to Hong Kong people’s demands raised since the anti-extradition movement.
They have been suppressing people’s voices on the pretext of the pandemic. Yet in doing so, they have actually strengthened Hongkongers’cultural identity and shared values, thus toughening people’s resistance. This is something the CCP and the Hong Kong government failed to anticipate.
The more unreasonable the suppression is and the more ridiculous the reasons cited by the authorities, the stronger people’s urge to resist. Everyone is just waiting for the next outbreak of resistance.
Eventually the pandemic will end.
Then, there will be colossal changes in the world, and mainland China will not be able to avoid them. To be sure, Hong Kong will be implicated, too, and that is actually not a long way off.
(Benny Tai Yiu-Ting is a Hong Kong legal scholar and democracy activist.)
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BACKDATE / UPDATE:
Hong Kong hit by mass exodus of civil servants
Hong Kong’s Civil Servants Protest Their Own Government
Elite Hong Kong civil servants resign, raising questions about morale, ‘top-down culture’ and politics in the workplace
When anti- pandemic measures were eased in October to allow six diners per table in restaurants while still banning public gatherings of more than four, many Hong Kong government policymakers were as puzzled as the city's residents.
"That was just another example of how inconsistent the government is now," said an administrative officer who resigned recently and preferred to go by the pseudonym Polly.
"Many policies in the administration are top-down, instead of bottom-up, and we have to provide the reasoning for policies we do not really endorse."
According to a comment on social media site REDDIT, the increasing number of top civil servants that are resigning 'is a sign of society destabilizing' (JoeyCannoli0)