One Country, Two Diseases: Hong Kong Protests in the Time of COVID-19

Tessie Sun | China Fellow

When we talk about the ‘Chinese virus,’ by and large, there is one particular image that comes to mind. But while the world remains fixated upon COVID-19 as the pandemic continues to dominate headlines, a second disease lingers in China. Far more insidious and entrenched, afflictions of corruption, the suppression of political dissent and the lack of civil rights plaguing the nation have reached a boiling point in Hong Kong.


Tension has existed between Hong Kong and mainland China since the territory’s handover in 1997 under the principle of ‘one country, two systems.’ Initially stemming from a variety of cultural and economic differences, these concerns have increasingly morphed into much more serious grievances regarding political and social oppression. Hong Kong has been labelled ‘the most expensive city in the world to live in’, and this, coupled with high levels of income disparity and little possibility for social mobility, has further exacerbated growing resentment and fears towards political meddling and encroachment from the mainland.


The 2014 Umbrella Movement saw suffragists occupy Hong Kong’s central business district in a series of sit-in street protests from September to December, demanding democratic electoral reforms and condemning increasing Chinese influence. Though no changes were made, these protests catalysed a rise in localist sentiments and fuelled the growing pro-independence movement.


Such sentiments came to a head in June 2019, as protestors took to the streets to oppose the extradition bill. The proposed legislation would have allowed criminal suspects to be transferred to mainland China for trial. Critics feared that such laws might subject those extradited to arbitrary detention, unfair trials and torture under China’s notoriously opaque judicial system.


Though initially peaceful, the protests rapidly morphed into violent confrontations resulting in numerous suicides, shootings and one man set on fire. By the time the bill was officially withdrawn in October 2019, protestors had latched onto broader pro-democracy aspirations and demanded an independent inquiry into police conduct.


With the district council election results in November 2019 and gradual de-escalation of tension, as well as the outbreak of COVID-19 in January 2020 and the resulting implementation of social distancing measures, Hong Kong has seemingly functioned under a façade of peace as the pro-democracy movement appears to have been displaced by the ongoing pandemic.


However, such a prognosis is not only naïve and premature, it also miscalculates a fundamentally problematic status quo.


The deep-seated nature of the protestors’ grievances is best elucidated through the defiance of John Mueller’s ‘rally ‘round the flag effect’. According to conventional wisdom, political leaders tend to experience short-run surges of popular support during international crises. In such times, citizens prioritise country over politics and thus respond positively to state policies – regardless of their inadequacies – due to a subconscious attachment to sources of ostensible stability as well as a desire to establish in-group support.


Such a trend has been visible in the approval ratings for political leaders across the globe, including Scott Morrison in Australia, Boris Johnson in the United Kingdom, Narendra Modi in India and Sergio Mattarella in Italy. Even Donald Trump in the United States, who faced an impeachment inquiry in the immediate leadup to the global pandemic, recorded a moderate rise during March.


And yet, the approval ratings of Carrie Lam and the Hong Kong administration have teetered around historic lows. The evidence is clear: the repeated demands to reform structural issues underpinning the region’s governance and address police brutality and misconduct, in addition to Beijing’s persistent tone deafness and disingenuous engagement with sensitive Hong Kong matters, are entrenched, systemic grievances that cannot and will not be pushed aside.


Though there have been fleeting and temporary respite from physical confrontation, if anything, the economic fallout and unemployment due to COVID-19 has compounded existing animosity.


With the pandemic easing in Hong Kong, protests have reignited. In particular, recently passed national security legislation has triggered substantial discontent and instability. By targeting secessionist or subversive activity and ‘foreign and external interference’, these laws significantly erode the ‘one country, two systems’ principle as they confer mainland security forces with the right to operate in Hong Kong. In essence, such legislation grants Beijing an additional weapon to crack down on protesters and dissidents. On 12 June, masses flocked to the streets to commemorate one year since the police-civilian clashes began.


Unless this cycle of protests and violence is to continue for another year, open and genuine engagement from both sides is required. While China must willingly engage by restoring public buy-in and trust in ‘one country, two systems’ alongside heeding calls for meaningful change, Hong Kong must not underestimate their own potential to make a difference by proactively mediating and initiating cooperation between Beijing and the Hong Kong public. With Beijing passing the controversial law, there remains hope for the fate of Hong Kong and Hong Kongers as countries sever their extradition treaties, the United Kingdom looks to offer a ‘pathway to citizenship’ for Hong Kongers and a legislative election in September.


Tessie Sun is the China Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.

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