China Power | Politics | East Asia

Hong Kong’s Protests Amid COVID-19: A Dying Movement or a Halted War?

The seeming peace in Hong Kong reflects a gathering storm on the horizon – a storm Hong Kong and Beijing alike must address.

Brian Wong
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Hong Kong’s Protests Amid COVID-19: A Dying Movement or a Halted War?
Credit: Flickr/ Studio Incendo

Some have suggested that the civil unrest and social movement so prominent in Hong Kong last year seem to have receded permanently as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak. Indeed, with the District Council elections results last November, the gradual de-escalation in tensions in December, and the implementation of social distancing and anti-gathering measures (both by legal stipulation and through voluntary civil society initiatives), it appears that “peace” has been restored to Hong Kong, with the social movement fading into the background as civilian efforts (with some governmental coordination) have been predominantly redirected to tackling the ongoing pandemic.

This diagnosis is not only naïve, but also romanticizes a deeply problematic status quo. Hong Kong’s respite from civilian-police altercation, regularized vigilante violence, and the inept handling of an unprecedented political crisis is both temporary and precariously maintained. The underlying sentiments, grievances, and motivations for the social movement remain vigorous and tenacious, and it is unlikely – contrary to the wishful thinking of some in the local establishment – that such uneasiness will simply dissipate. Once the pandemic settles (plausibly within the next six months, but that is up in the air), old wounds would only re-emerge as fresh flare-ups ignite long-standing animosities and tensions. The seeming peace in Hong Kong reflects a gathering storm on the horizon – a storm with which Hong Kong and Beijing alike must grapple seriously.

Same Grievances, Different Masks

How has the COVID-19 outbreak interacted with the pre-existing socio-political movement, originally initiated as a response to the now-withdrawn Extradition Bill?

It’s worth noting primarily that much of the pre-existing antagonism and resentment toward the government had not been resolved through the crisis. Conventional wisdom (per John Mueller’s “rally ‘round the flag effect”) suggests that at times of crises, governmental popularity and approval ratings would increase as a result of the population “prioritizing country over politics,” responding positively to the state’s policies and measures (albeit imperfect or flawed) out of both subconscious attachment to sources of relative certainty and the rational calculus of rewarding or encouraging efficacious governance. Yet the Hong Kong administration’s approval ratings have persistently hovered around its historic low points, with further dips well into the outbreak (see the Hong Kong Public Opinion Programme survey conducted between February 17-19 this year). The reason for this is simple – animosity toward the administration has persisted over failures to address allegations of police brutality and misconduct, repeated refusals to open up a genuine and thorough investigation into the structural issues underpinning Hong Kong’s governance, as well as the continually botched handling of issues sensitive to Hong Kongers’ self-conceptions in relation to Beijing and the central administration. These are long-standing, structural grievances that incidental relief measures and “anti-crisis” rhetoric are incapable of sustainably or viscerally “crowding out” – as such, unlike the temporary cross-partisan consensus in the post-9/11 United States, the pent-up frustrations of Hong Kongers are neither displaced by more salient concerns nor counteracted by countervailing sentiments.

If anything, the outbreak has broadened the coalition of individuals with substantive disgruntlement toward the political establishment. “New joiners” to the coalition range from the politically apathetic – with minimal ideological commitments, yet with newfound antipathy over their loss of employment and downward socioecomonic movement during the crisis – to members of the establishment who had previously rallied behind the administration out of political loyalties and the self-constructed need to “toe the right line.” In terms of the latter, these have ranged from the higher-end working classes (from which pro-Beijing parties, such as the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong and the Federation of Trade Unions, traditionally source their political support) to middle-class voters previously “perturbed” by the ostensible disruption to law and order from the protests in 2019. These individuals have swiftly pivoted away from the government – both out of frustration at the government’s delayed responses to the crisis, but more eminently, perhaps, out of the resentment that their loyalty and continued support has not been duly rewarded.

The intriguing interplay between the ongoing pandemic and mass attitudes has given rise to subcultural memes and slogans that convey gleeful schadenfreude in response to reports of members of the police force being infected with the virus. It would come as no surprise that while pro-establishment  forces have continually sought to frame such speech as unethical and unlawful, they have found far less vocal resonance among these newly disillusioned constituents, who do not harbor vindictiveness toward the police yet are far less willing to “speak up” in support of the establishment .

Some cynics may argue that while animosity has persisted, it seems that the movement has become – as a whole – less violent; presumably, the decrease in frequency of mass rallies, assemblies, and police-civilian confrontations indicates that the political momentum of the movement has gradually dissipated, at least in the ferocity of its form. Yet this is a poor argument – transformations to the mode of contestation (per Charles Tilly and Sidney Tarrow’s analysis of social movements) do not equate to the disintegration of the movement.

An unpublished paper by Tak Huen Chau and Kin-Man Wan (CUHK) offers illuminating insights into the strong correlation between the frequency and intensity of tear-gassing in districts and the propensities of constituents in said district to vote for pro-Democratic, anti-establishment  candidates in the 2019 District Council Elections. The institutionalization of the movement’s momentum poses a significant worry for members of both the local establishment  and Beijing – the upcoming 2020 Legislative Council elections could well be the first in Hong Kong’s post-handover history where the opposition has a viable path to capturing over half of the 70 contested seats. Irrespective of the downstream implications (which may well include worsened polarization and entrenchment of the political standstill), the establishment cannot afford to downplay the need of responding to abundantly clear public sentiments.

Moreover, while the frequency of violent confrontations has indubitably decreased, the intensity of such confrontations has only increased. In January, a group of protesters set up roadblocks and engaged in arson near Fai Ming Estate, an unoccupied estate that was proposed as a potential site for quarantine. Three petrol bombs were hurled into the Hong Kong police married quarters in late March. Sporadic confrontations between police and protesters have often escalated into bellicose physical altercations between the forces and civilians. The increase in intensity has been accompanied by a continued proliferation of an attitude of “not participating, but not rebuking” (“不參與 但不割蓆”). Zealous devotees to the political movement view any and all condemnation of violence – particularly directed toward targets construed as alleged tools of oppression – as fundamentally misguided and a betrayal of the movement’s values. These permissive attitudes toward violence indicate that once the pandemic settles, or sufficient anger and disillusionment have built up within the public, violence may once again become a routinized reality on Hong Kong’s streets – an outcome of which any sensible political actor ought to be wary.

Finally, the COVID-19 outbreak has inevitably become a subject of global political contestation and critique. Increasing antagonism toward the Chinese regime – brought about both by understandable resentment for its handling of the crisis, as well as targeted instigation by partisan politics – has been accompanied by a surge in racism toward Chinese migrants and citizens. The Hong Kong protest movement has swiftly adapted to this nascent zeitgeist and incorporated distinct elements of the anti-Chinese backlash into its activism. From heightened awareness of and concern over the tensions between Taiwan and the World Health Organization, to (misinformed, but nevertheless effective) attempts at echoing racist generalizations about the Chinese, to expressing schadenfreude at the suffering of mainland Chinese citizens and migrants, the more radical fringes of the movement have sought to reclaim the COVID-19 outbreak as an opportune window for launching what they deem to be structural critiques of the Chinese regime.

Whether such critiques are valid, substantiated, or logically coherent is beside the point. Rightly or wrongly, the more radical among the protesters have sublimated their original critique of alleged Chinese interference in Hong Kong by latching it onto a global wave of anti-Chinese sentiments (which, against the wishes of the armchair idealist, has struggled to differentiate, as it should, between anti-regime and anti-ethnicity variants).

The Political Disease Is Harder to Shake

This trend is worrying, for several reasons. First, it gives hard-line bureaucrats and politicians within the Chinese establishment newfound ammunition to perceive or spin the Hong Kong movement as ostensibly secessionist, thereby legitimizing sterner responses. Second, it provides ideological accreditation to an originally fringe yet increasingly popular variant of localist thought within the movement – one that embraces Hong Kong as an outpost for the West in constraining China. While some in the movement may think that they could maneuver and effectively channel Western support in constraining the Chinese presence in Hong Kong, an embittered and battered regime recovering from both a nation-wide epidemic and the U.S.-China trade war is unlikely to capitulate or concede in face of this not-so-strategic realignment. Third, the distinctly ethnocentric tinge of both the critiques of the Chinese regime, as well as the continued projection of hyper-defensive nationalism by Beijing, would only cause a denaturing of a movement that started out in response to inept governance in Hong Kong. These are trends for which Hong Kong inevitably must pay the price. While the mercurial support from Trump’s administration is unlikely to last or be in the city’s interests, it could very well alienate the last remnants of support for moderate dialogue and compromise within the mainland and Hong Kong administration.

With all that said, the outlook is not sheer doom and gloom. I suggest here that it is in the interests of the Hong Kong and Beijing administrations to engage in open, unreserved discussion with members of the opposition who are willing to – this neither constitutes the radical fringes of the movement, nor those who are bent on instigating further escalation for ulterior political motives.

First, the current respite for violence enables both Beijing and Carrie Lam’s government to avert the fundamental worry they harbor concerning coming across as capitulating in the face of violence. It is understandable; after all, for both actors, with their end goals of preserving stability, succumbing to violence could well endanger their ability to rule by encouraging replication or imitation. This is precisely why, given the decreased frequency of violence, as well as the potential for goodwill-building (through policies that target small and medium enterprises and working-class citizens in Hong Kong), Lam’s administration should and could act in facilitating a genuine de-escalation to the crisis. This would take the forms of independent investigation into a multitude of areas – including police conduct, protesters’ actions, and the blunders of the government, accompanied by more structural rethinking of how Hong Kong’s governance could be improved, even without full universal suffrage. In the short term, this could be accompanied by an acknowledgment of the administration’s inadequacies and an explicit olive branch to engage in genuine dialogue. The space for dialogue and compromise cannot remain on a theoretical and abstract level – it must be forged, at times with great difficulty, at other times against the adversaries of inertia and cowardice. Those with the greatest political power must bear the responsibilities of preventing the disintegration of political order.

Second, the political establishment should also recognize that the continued maintenance of “one country, two systems” – even on a merely symbolic or economic level – cannot hold without restoring public buy-in and faith in the system. This does not mean unconditional acceptance or concessions to each and every demand of those who oppose the regime. Instead, it suggests that the establishment must critically reflect upon how Hong Kong’s political institutions could be liberalized and reformed, without posing a fundamental threat to Beijing in its rule over the rest of China. Some suggest that in face of Beijing’s instructions, Hong Kong’s political establishment has no teeth or ability to act. This characterization is not only mistaken, but dangerous; it neglects the potential of change initiated by a more open-minded and proactive local establishment that steps up to its task of mediating and liaising between Beijing and the Hong Kong public.

Should the Hong Kong administration fail to seize upon this moment, the increasingly prevalent trend of Hong Kong nationalism – even secessionism – would only take further root in the city, thereby pushing the city into a new international Cold War that its citizens, including those in the movement, have little to no ability to control. Hong Kong must save itself before it passes the point of no return in its slide into ethno-nationalism. It falls upon members of the establishment, the government, and the self-anointed political elite to act promptly.

Brian Wong is a Rhodes Scholar-Elect from Hong Kong (2020), and a current MPhil in Politics Candidate at Wolfson College, University of Oxford. They are the Founding Editor-in-Chief of the Oxford Political Review, Founding Secretary of Citizen Action Design Lab, Founding Fellow of Governance Partners Yangon, and a frequent contributor to publications such as TIME, South China Morning Post, Times Higher Education, Asia Times, Fortune, and the Hong Kong Economic Journal.