China Power | Society | East Asia

One Coronavirus, Two Systems: New Epidemic Hits at Hong Kong’s Political Divide

The outbreak taps into deep-seated anti-mainland sentiments in Hong Kong.

Shannon Tiezzi
One Coronavirus, Two Systems: New Epidemic Hits at Hong Kong’s Political Divide

In this Thursday, Jan. 23, 2020 file photo, passengers wear protective face masks at the departure hall of the high speed train station in Hong Kong.

Credit: AP Photo/Kin Cheung, File

The rapidly growing outbreak of a new strain of coronavirus is adding fuel to the fire of anti-mainland sentiment in Hong Kong. The disease, which originated in Wuhan, the capital of China’s Hubei province, hit hard in a city that remains deeply divided over the scope and state of its relationship with the central government in Beijing.

Fears of Chinese encroachment have long existed in Hong Kong, but these concerns reached a boiling point last summer over a proposed change that would allow Hong Kongers to be extradited to mainland China. The bill provided a catalyst to long-simmering concerns that Hong Kong’s judicial independence was being eroded. The resulting massive protests, the largest of which saw more than 1 million participants, were met with a harsh police response, including the use of tear gas and rubber bullets. That sparked further outrage and accusations of police brutality. Protests of varying scale continued nearly every weekend since June 2019, with demands growing to encompass investigations of the police response and universal suffrage in elections for Hong Kong’s legislators and chief executive.

Amid that turbulent environment, the Wuhan coronavirus reached Hong Kong in early 2020.

According to the latest figures, mainland China has reported over 4,600 cases and 106 deaths. Hong Kong has eight confirmed cases and 100 patients in quarantine, health secretary Sophia Chan said at a press conference on Tuesday. The Hong Kong government has declared the outbreak an “emergency” situation and is refusing entry to anyone who has visited Hubei province within the past 14 days (Hong Kong residents are excepted). Group tours from China have also been suspended.

To many Hong Kongers, though, the government has not done enough. There is growing pressure on the Hong Kong government to close border crossings with the Chinese mainland entirely. Medical faculty members at the Chinese University urged the government “to restrict immigration policies as early as practicable, including broadening the scope of restrictions to any region stricken with the outbreak other than Hubei.” Considering that the disease has now been reported in every province of China except for Tibet, that would amount to a near-ban on travelers from the mainland. In addition, the hospital workers’ union gave the government until Tuesday to bar entry from mainland China, threatening a strike if its demands were not met.

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The outbreak has ironically brought the pro-democracy and pro-establishment camps together in their disapproval of the government response. Both pro-democracy parties and the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB), the largest pro-establishment party, have called for a temporary shutdown of the border with the mainland. “Special circumstances require special measures,” DAB leader Starry Lee Wai-king said. “The government should consider closing the border.” Democratic Party chairman Wu Chi-wai likewise urged a closure: “Hundreds of thousands of people enter Hong Kong through mainland’s borders every day. If we’re not closing the border, we may not be able to stop the virus from spreading,”

In a press conference on Tuesday, however, Chief Executive Carrie Lam rebuffed those calls. “If we close the border and do not let anyone coming in and out of Hong Kong, the impact will be far-reaching,” she said.

Instead, Lam announced that railway and ferry service linking Hong Kong to the mainland will be suspended as of midnight Thursday and flights between Hong Kong and the mainland will be cut in half. Hong Kong will also cease issuing travel permits for individuals from the mainland, following its previous ban on group tours. Six of 14 border checkpoints are to be closed, although the South China Morning Post notes that together those six checkpoints handled less than 8 percent of cross-border travelers in 2018.

Hong Kong will also have government employees work from home in a bid to stop the disease from spreading. Public facilities, such as sports centers, swimming pools, museums, libraries, and performance venues, will be closed indefinitely.

Lam emphasized that all these moves were made with “the approval of the central government” in Beijing. “I thank the central government for supporting our work in this aspect and the relevant mainland ministries and commissions for cooperating with us,” she said.

The need for Lam to stress unity with the mainland was a sign of how the outbreak is playing out in Hong Kong’s public sphere. The crisis taps into existing negative sentiments in Hong Kong: the perception of a creeping mainland Chinese “invasion,” particularly to take advantage of Hong Kong’s healthcare system; pervasive distrust of the central government; and lack of faith in the Hong Kong government to protect Hong Kongers’ interests over Beijing’s.

Frustration spilled over into violence on Sunday night when protesters set an empty public housing estate in Fanling ablaze as part of a demonstration against plans to use the buildings as a quarantine zone.

Ma Ngok, an associate professor of political science at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, told the New York Times that pro-establishment locals had joined the protest in an unusual development. “They ostensibly support the government, but when it came to using their neighborhood for quarantine, they came out and blocked the roads,” Ma said.

The quarantine plan was suspended after the incident, although the government said it plans to have officials attend the local district council meeting Wednesday “to explain and discuss on this issue.” Similarly, after public outrage the government had to scrap plans to offer free medical treatment to anyone with the coronavirus; Lam confirmed that  hospitals will charge all non-Hong Kong residents for their care.

The current outbreak has special resonance in Hong Kong because of its similarities to the SARS epidemic of 2003, which killed 299 people in the city and infected 1,755. Then, as now, Hong Kong was the first to see the disease outside of mainland China; also like SARS, the Wuhan coronavirus arrived in Hong Kong at a time when the Chinese government was being accused of covering up details and withholding information. SARS left a deep mark in Hong Kong and many are especially vigilant about the Wuhan coronavirus for that reason.

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Bolstered by a lack of trust in the central and Hong Kong governments, rumors are running rampant on social media. Some posters claim, without evidence, that mainland visitors are lying to avoid quarantine or walking out of hospitals without being cleared. There are also conspiracy theories, such claims that the new coronavirus strain is a biological weapon that escaped from a facility in Wuhan.

Lam scolded those spreading “ridiculous” rumors. “This misinformation will eventually hurt society,” she said. “One of the examples is that I would use Hong Kong’s resources to help China to fight the virus … I strongly condemn people who spread such rumors.”