Why Coronavirus is a Major Setback for Hong Kong Protesters

Marta Colombo

HONG KONG -- On a recent post on his Instagram page, Joshua Wong urged Hong Kong residents and the rest of the world to not "give up on us" superimposed over a picture of a young protester's face covered in blood. In the caption, the pro-democracy activist stresses the importance of the rule of law, which he says is "dead" in Hong Kong, and to keep the pro-democracy fight alive.

Wong's post came in response to Deputy Police Chief Oscar Kwok's speech during a rare appearance at the U.N. Human Rights Council on March 9, in which he refuted accusations of brutality the Hong Kong police force has been repeatedly associated with.

Since the 2019 anti-government protests started a year ago with rallies against a now-withdrawn extradition bill, many in the territory have been calling for international institutions and governments to protect its judicial independence and the "one country, two system" constitutional principle that regulates Hong Kong's relationship with China.

Mass marches and demonstrations have been on pause since the novel coronavirus outbreak reached the semi-autonomous territory in late January, with activists struggling to maintain momentum for the movement. But Wong and other activists have looked at the virus and the local government's initial response to the health emergency as a further erosion of Hong Kong's sovereignty.

"When the coronavirus outbreak hit several cities in China, it was also another blow to Hong Kong's autonomy and fear and anxiety started growing as cases all over the country were tripling every day," Wong says, "In the face of mounting calls for a full shutdown of borders, Carrie Lam (Hong Kong's chief executive) repeatedly dismissed the public's demands, just like she has been handling the call for an independent investigation into police and full political reforms."

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Still, the overall impact of the coronavirus across Hong Kong, a region that encompasses not only the city but about 200 islands, has been minimal compared to the mainland and many other countries. By March 15, just 149 patients with COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, were under isolation with another 84 confirmed or suspected cases discharged following recovery, according to the Hong Kong Hospital Authority.

"I think people in Hong Kong have a lot of experience in responding to emerging epidemics, especially going back to SARS, and are well prepared to take precautionary measures themselves and adapt to the measures introduced by the government, such as the closure of schools," says Benjamin Cowling, professor and division head of epidemiology and biostatistics at The University of Hong Kong. "COVID-19 transmission is currently being contained in Hong Kong."

The New Year's Day march was the last large-scale anti-government protest. The massive demonstration (organizers estimate the attendance was more than 1 million, while police say around 60,000 attended) was called off after it had turned violent and at least 400 were arrested. Since then, only small groups of protests around the city have occurred.

"The virus has in a way stopped the large-scale protests in public areas because people aren't encouraged to gather and this generally helped the low number of cases in Hong Kong," says Tony Lau, a private tutor in the city who has been active in organizing demonstrations and spreading English messages about the pro-democracy movement.

"While the epidemic won't directly fuel the movement, the government has again shown its incapability since, for example, citizens need to find their own ways to buy masks, and there will be large-scale demonstrations on the streets once the emergency is over."

But while the extent of the outbreak in Hong Kong has been far lower than on the mainland, the shortage of masks, as well as allegations that Communist Party officials in Beijing initially covered up the extent and danger of the outbreak, contributed to the health emergency being linked to the anti-government movement, activists say.

"Because of the outbreak, the government has found itself trapped in another legitimacy crisis that begs the question as to whether the city can still maintain its independence from China," Wong says. "It's worse than SARS and one of the reasons is connected to the pro-democracy movement, as Beijing has classified all types of masks as 'sensitive items,' including surgical masks."

In early February, when thousands of doctors and nurses went on strike to urge Lam to close all borders with mainland China to contain the outbreak, many of the slogans against the authorities resembled the now-iconic chants of the protest movement, such as "Liberate Hong Kong! Revolution of our times!"

Chui Siu Kit, a contractor who has supported the protest movement at every opportunity, says the next mass events will be the anniversaries observing attacks against protesters and civilians last summer. The goals of the movement, he says, will still be the original five demands and to obtain punishment for police brutality.

"It will take a long time to accomplish the goals," Lau says, "But the movement is alive and we anticipate that the people of Hong Kong will be as involved as before with the same determination they had last year."

Mentioning the wave of discontent and short-lived demands for freedom of speech that erupted on Chinese social media following the death of Li Wenliang, the Wuhan doctor who had been reprimanded for issuing an early warning on the coronavirus, Wong talks about "being oppressed under President Xi's personality cult and tight control."

"This new wave of anger and discontent will fuel further protests," he says. "The coronavirus outbreak is not the end, but a new beginning of our fight for democracy, freedom and autonomy. After all, this is a battle against China's authoritarian oppression."

Marta Colombo is a Hong Kong-based journalist. You can follow her on both Twitter and Instagram.