Curfews became effective in major American cities starting March 2020. People were issued stay-at home orders and schools were closed. While many people in the West wonder about the extent to which COVID-19 suppression is actually used to allow state actors more control, Hong Kong has a clear case: Pandemic mitigation strategies have given Beijing cover to crush any remaining pro-democracy activists, to ensure that the law’s full implementation. This law was put into force in June 2020. It aims at bringing long-autonomous Hong Kong to the control of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), destroying all freedoms Hongkongers treasure.
The 1997 British surrender of Hong Kong to China was contingent on Beijing allowing the territory significant freedoms. There would also be a functioning separate system that could continue to function until 2047. It was called “one nation, two systems”. Beijing has chosen to preemptively seize control, suppress dissent and censor any disloyal citizens by adopting the national security laws.
This law was made after lawmakers in Hong Kong introduced an extradition bill which would allow Hongkongers being tried on the mainland for specific crimes. The New York Times And many others) “for introducing unclearly defined crimes like separatism or collusion that could be used to suppress protest.” Hong Kong is now in a period of decline and national security laws could spell doom for its freedoms. All this changed in the early 2019 and sparked a protest movement that continued until 2020’s first half, when the pandemic struck.
COVID-19 then served as an excuse why Legislative Council election (LegCo), had to be delayed for a year. With tempo on its side and the goodwill that had been generated by a million-person-strong protest movement, the pro-democracy coalition could have maintained some influence within Hong Kong’s legislative body even as electoral viability dwindled in the face of Beijing’s increased exertions. However, LegCo rules changed quickly between the elections and allowed only “patriots”, those who pledge loyalty towards Beijing to run.
“The government spared no effort to paint the election as legitimate, even threatening foreign newspapers that suggested otherwise,” reported The New York Times. But such loyalty oaths and purity tests meant to weed out members of the pro-democracy opposition prove that these elections were a sham, bolstered by the fact that the November 2019 elections—those held directly prior to the pandemic—resulted in a pro-democracy coalition sweep, with those candidates winning more than 85 percent of district council seats (a lower level of government than the LegCo, but a useful bellwether in terms of understanding pro-democracy sentiment).
The next surprise was the sweep by LegCo candidates who had pledged loyality to the mainland. According to the Associated Press, “Leading opposition leaders are either in prison or exile and have been intimidated into submission.” Voter turnout was a paltry 30 percent—the lowest it had been since Hong Kong became semi-independent in 1997. For comparison: In November 2019, 71% of voters registered in Hong Kong showed up to vote for the district council elections.
This month saw the inaugural meeting of the new Potemkin legislature. The new Potemkin legislature is unlikely to be used as an effective check against Beijing or for the representation of many Hongkongers, who still believe that autonomy should be protected and “one nation, two systems” shouldn’t have ever been compromised. These elections are a farce because so few people even turned up for the vote in a country with high voter turnout.
The most alarming example of national security laws being justified by pandemic safety is the total electoral overhaul. However, many others are possible. COVID-19 has been used as pretense to shut down pro-democracy protests for violating social distancing rules, arguably even leading to the fizzling out of the 2019–2020 anti–extradition law protest movement. And every year in Hong Kong since 1990, people have taken to the streets to march and hold a vigil, keeping the memories alive of the Tiananmen Square dead—until 2020, when Hong Kong announced that the city would be extending COVID-19 restrictions, lifting them on June 5, the literal day after the anniversary. This is not subtle.
COVID-19 city rules of the day forbid public meetings with more than 8 people. This led to a possible six-month sentence. The high penalty meant that there was no vigil held for victims of Tiananmen Square’s massacre. Instead, the activists were taken into custody and given up to 14 months in jail. Judge of sentencing noted that defendants “ignored or minimized a legitimate public health crisis.”
The situation at colleges is not much worse. It’s not a good place to be a college student.Culture of disobedience that was once thriving has been destroyed and replaced by culture of caution. Professors have a right to worry about their students and coworkers spying on them through tip lines. Remote learning adaptations allow for greater government surveillance and recording than regular in-person instruction. Certain subjects have been removed form the syllabus. Sometimes it is obvious that paranoia and speech suppression are caused by national security law. At other times, the motivations for remote learning adaptations include vague, “safety” reasons. It can be difficult to determine whether these justifications refer to safety from virus contagion, or police.
Administrations of universities also attempted to make the pandemic a justification for restrictions on speech, maybe to cover the fact that the law on national security is forcing them into a lot of trouble. Administrations of Hong Kong Baptist University are also involved. abruptAnnulled photo exhibition last year that would have featured pictures from 2019’s anti–security law protests, after state media called them out. As a justification, the university cited both pandemic and security concerns. The same exhibit was on display at Macau’s stop. abruptly canceledWithout explanation in October 2020, Rumours were circulatedBeijing intervened.
Pursuing a Zero COVID policy in much the same way mainland China has, Hong Kong is currently expanding lockdowns and restrictions, including by suspending overseas flights, requiring a 21-day quarantine (with the first 14 days spent in a government-designated facility) for all arrivals, and forcing restaurants to ban indoor dining after 6 p.m. Chek Lap Kok Airport, which in 2019 was the (somewhat unwilling) host of a multi-day pro-democracy sit-in which led to flights being paused for at least two days, is now comparatively sparse with arrivals. Simon Cartledge is a long-term resident and says that Hong Kong cannot be connected with the rest of the globe if it doesn’t have its “reason for being”. Telled The Financial Times.
The type of speech that had once been allowed, and the type of business investment that had once thrived, and the type of civic culture born out of Hong Kong’s unique status have all been crippled by the twin threats of the pandemic and the national security law—the former too often being the state’s sneaky justification for the latter.