Hong Kong: Pandemic, Protests, and Protecting “National” Security
by Mark W. Frazier, Professor, New School for Social Research
The annual June 4 candlelight vigil in Hong Kong to commemorate those who died in the 1989 suppression of peaceful protests in China was canceled this year, although a few thousand citizens jumped the fences at Victoria Park to hold informal ceremonies. For the first time in three decades, the Hong Kong government rejected applications to hold the vigil on the grounds that its pandemic control measures prohibited public gatherings of more than eight people. The limit was raised to 50 people on June 15, but four pro-democracy activists were arrested and charged over this year’s informal June 4 gathering for “inciting others to take part in an unauthorized assembly.” In a similar fashion, plans to hold large-scale rallies in Hong Kong to mark the one-year anniversary of June 12, 2019—the day that police used tear gas and rubber bullets on demonstrators outside the legislature, triggering protests that continued the rest of the year—were also downgraded to a scattered few gatherings around the city.
In late May, protests and pandemic converged in American cities in the wake of George Floyd’s murder at the hands of Minneapolis police and the ensuing calls for abolishing structural racism in American society. A Twitter user in Minneapolis shared tips from the Hong Kong protests of 2019 on protective gear to wear when protesting. And the American protests bought about some much-needed reflection among Hong Kong protestors over their acceptance of support from certain Republicans (e.g., Tom Cotton) and the Trump administration. In American cities, the right to protest, to call out injustices in public gatherings, has confronted—and largely defeated—public health measures that mandate against such gatherings. In Hong Kong, at least for now, the latter have superseded the former, with the government signaling that it will go after protest organizers for violating the ban on large assemblies. This article discusses the convergence in Hong Kong of pandemics and protests, which first occurred in 2003 amidst the backdrop to highly controversial anti-sedition legislation that is today at the center of Hong Kong politics—and indeed, the end of the “one country, two systems” arrangement.
The SARS coronavirus, believed to have originated up the Pearl River in Guangzhou, inflicted a public health crisis on the city from March to June 2003, during which 1,750 cases were recorded and 286 Hong Kong residents died. At the very same time as the SARS pandemic, Beijing pressed the Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa to pass legislation defining threats to national security, in line with Article 23 of the Basic Law. An unprecedented march of 500,000 took place on July 1, 2003 to mark the anniversary of the transfer to PRC sovereignty and to show widespread opposition to the Article 23 legislation. Tung soon withdrew the legislation. After SARS, wearing masks in public became commonplace in Hong Kong, especially during flu seasons. The issue of passing a national security law came up occasionally over the next 17 years—until 2020, when Beijing shocked Hong Kong residents by advancing a plan to have China’s legislature pass a national security law for Hong Kong later this year. The United States soon responded by de-certifying Hong Kong’s “high degree of autonomy” under an American law that could strip special trading and investment measures with Hong Kong (rendering it in trade and investment terms the same as any other Chinese city). The American move came as part of a free-fall in relations with China in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. By all counts, it was the Chinese Communist Party’s reaction to the 2019 protests that convinced it to take such a severe step.
The 2003 protests inspired subsequent mobilizations aimed at protecting Hong Kong’s political institutions and even its identity from erosion under inflows of mainland Chinese capital, infrastructure, and tourism. Among these were a 2009-10 campaign to block the demolition of a New Territories village that was in the path of the Guangzhou-Shenzhen-Hong Kong express railway. The protest failed to block the railway and the residents were forcibly relocated, but it signaled the unease among the Hong Kong public with the deepening sense of integration with the mainland. In 2012, protests again asserted the distinctiveness of Hong Kong autonomy and identity when a movement, led by the 16-year old Joshua Wong, formed to oppose measures by the Hong Kong government to introduce “moral and national education” (meaning a PRC version of Chinese history) into the school curriculum. Demonstrators staged a large rally and sit-in at the Civic Square outside the Legislative Council Building. The protests succeeded and the government withdrew the curricular reforms.
The Umbrella Movement in 2014 began in response to Beijing’s announcement that year for a revised electoral system that still denied citizens the means to directly elect the Chief Executive. Student protestors launched a class boycott, and in late September occupied the Civic Square. They were set on by police using pepper spray, and their use of umbrellas to shield themselves from teargas and pepper spray gave the movement its name. The movement, which occurred over a 79-day period in three locations in the city, came to an end in December, largely through attrition and a government strategy to let the occupied spaces provoke disapproval and even counter-mobilization of citizens who opposed the disruptions to mobility and their livelihoods.
The aftermath of the Umbrella Movement saw a widespread crackdown by Beijing and the Hong Kong government. The opposition or pan-democrats divided along several dimensions, but the most basic were generational and political—with the younger activists eschewing the parties and electoral strategies of the older democrats in favor of direct action, and a third camp that was more explicitly localist, including some candidates and parties competing for legislative seats who overtly called for Hong Kong independence. (The Hong Kong government outlawed these parties and even prohibited elected representatives from taking seats in the legislature in 2016.) At the same time, Beijing launched a sweeping “counter-mobilization” – pushing for the arrests of the leaders of the OCLP campaign, the student leaders in the Umbrella Movement, and much else.
Amidst the 2016-18 crackdown, Hong Kong’s healthcare sector drew accolades for its world-leading standards. Hong Kong’s healthcare system, based on the British National Health Service model, offers free high-quality health care, even if it leads to extended wait times for patients and longer working hours for doctors and hospital staff. Hong Kong was ranked number one in the 2018 Bloomberg’s Healthcare Efficiency Index, a measure that takes into account life expectancy, average healthcare costs per capita, as well as health spending as a share of GDP. (The United States was near the bottom of the list of 56 middle and high-income economies). But the 100,000 medical workers in Hong Kong’s first-rate public hospitals would soon find themselves in the middle of street battles between protestors and police—and by November 2019 would treat an estimated 2,100 wounded protestors, even as Hong Kong police sought to interrogate and arrest suspects inside public hospitals.
What became the city’s largest protest movement began with marches against the extradition bill in April. On the weekend before the bill’s first reading in the LegCo, a march that drew one million took place on June 9. As the bill moved to its second reading a few days later, on June 12, protestors massed outside the LegCo, where police attempted to break them up using a reported 150 rounds of teargas, in quantities that exceeded the 87 rounds used during the full stretch of the 2014 Umbrella Movement. In response to the blatantly repressive tactics by the Hong Kong police, an estimated 1.5 to 2 million people took part in marches on June 16—the largest in the city’s history.
But the large marches and concentrations of demonstrators in prominent civic spaces, a repertoire derived from 2014 and before, soon gave way to the unprecedented tactics of roaming “flash protests” in symbolically important venues such as shopping malls associated with mainland Chinese corporations, transportation hubs that linked with the mainland, and so forth. Social media apps were used to quickly mobilize large numbers of protestors, and provide participants with a range of information on the whereabouts of police, sympathetic shopkeepers, and medical volunteers. They were an example of what recent social movement scholars have termed “connective action” based on information sharing across networks rather than the conventional forms of “collective action” involving hierarchical organizations deploying resources to mobilize participants.
What was also distinctive about the 2019 protests—and related to the facility with which social media apps were used—was the age of the participants. A recently published study by Francis L. F. Lee and colleagues confirms what many reports noted anecdotally last year. According to surveys of 12,231 respondents at 19 venues between June 9 and late August, 61 percent were under age 29—but the more compelling observation was that those under age 19 accounted for 11.8 percent of the protestors. (Another 22 percent were ages 20 to 24).
As the protests stretched across the summer, including dramatic scenes of thugs attacking metro passengers, protestors occupying the Hong Kong airport, and a general strike that shut down public transportation, the Hong Kong government responded by drawing on the legacies of its colonial predecessor. Following a series of violent episodes during an October 1 protest (China’s National Day), Carrie Lam announced that the wearing of masks in public would be banned—this was to better identify protestors and arrest them using surveillance techniques. The ban was challenged in court, but was upheld by the Court of Final Appeal in April of 2020, with the stipulation that police could arrest anyone wearing a mask at an “unlawful assembly.”
By then, the mask ban had been rendered irrelevant by the massive citizen response to the government’s bungled attempts to cope with the spread of the coronavirus. Carrie Lam was in Davos at the World Economic Forum when the first cases emerged in Hong Kong, and she was slow to act when she finally did return, postponing calls to close the border with China and even declining to wear a mask—which her civil servants also abjured at first. And yet despite these delays, Hong Kong with its high-density residences and neighborhoods had suffered only 1,039 Covid-19 infections and four deaths by early May 2020. Hong Kongers have attributed the successful outcome not to anything that the Hong Kong government did to protect them, but largely to the actions of the medical community and civil society organizations. In February, medical workers launched a strike to demand the distribution of masks free to the public and the closing of borders with China. The Hong Kong authorities soon complied with both demands.
In March 2020, during a brief uptick in new Covid-19 cases, Lam announced a ban on public gatherings of more than four people. When the cases were brought under control by early May, she announced an extension of the ban, and permitted public gatherings of up to eight people. It was this rule that authorities applied when they rejected the application to hold the June 4 vigil.
The proposed National Security Law that Beijing is intent on forcing upon Hong Kong will continue to draw scattered protests over the course of this year, regardless of the government’s “quota” on public gatherings. But larger questions loom beyond the possibilities of whether the protests will continue. Will campaigning for the Legislative Council elections on September 6 be constrained by public health regulations, or even by the swift passage of the National Security law? When and how will the law’s provisions to punish “treason, secession, sedition, and subversion” of the Chinese state come into force in Hong Kong? A law in the guise of protecting the “national security” of China is paradoxically but predictably deepening support for a “seditious” idea. The leading slogan among protestors this summer has become the once unthinkable: “Hong Kong Independence—the Only Way Out.”
Note: Portions of this essay first appeared in Asia Pacific Forum, May 15, 2020.
Mark W. Frazier is Professor of Politics at The New School for Social Research and Co-Director of the India China Institute at The New School. He is the author of The Power of Place: Contentious Politics in Twentieth Century Shanghai and Bombay (Cambridge University Press, 2019)
This piece was a contribution to the Democracy & the Pandemic Mini-Conference of the Democracy Seminar held on May 20-21, 2020.