Hong Kong dissidents see coronavirus outbreak ‘fuelling’ protest movement


While continuous anti-government protests is a staple in Hong Kong since June last year, the demonstrations are on hold right now as fear of coronavirus in neighbouring China keeps the city’s 7.4 million avoiding large crowds.

But a protest leader says frustration over the government’s handling of the public health crisis will fuel even more support for the protest movement after the virus scare subsides.

“It’s hard to separate the protests and the epidemic – they are in the same vein,” said prominent activist Ventus Lau, who like other protest organisers, sees the disease as a new front in the broader struggle for more democracy. “The battle against the virus has helped us see the government’s incompetence and the failures of our system,” he said.

Hong Kong’s protests erupted in June of last year in opposition to a since-scrapped Bill allowing extradition to mainland China.

Even before coronavirus cases began emerging in recent weeks, the financial hub’s economy fell into recession after months of violent clashes between riot police and protesters.

The frequency of larger-scale protests began subsiding after a landslide win for pro-democracy forces in last November’s district council elections, followed by the Chinese New Year holidays and now the virus scare. There have only been two major rallies – in early December and on New Year’s Day – in the last two months, compared with regular protests at the height of the movement.

The broader pause has prompted protesters to reassess their tactics to meet their key demands, including an independent inquiry into police abuses and meaningful elections. That has been on display in the past few weeks with the rise of pro-democracy unions, including one by medical workers calling for the city to seal off the mainland border, as well as organising ahead of September elections for the city’s powerful Legislative Council.

Many in the protest movement are also registering voters for the city’s so-called “functional constituencies,” seats in the legislature allotted to industry groups, according to veteran activist and former professor Joseph Cheng.

“This is going to be a very important aspect of the movement – you can’t organise large-scale protests activities because people obviously have to stay home” amid the outbreak, Prof Cheng said. But he said the new limitations it imposed wouldn’t stop the movement.”The resentment certainly has been building and spreading,” he said. “People are trying to find ways to express anger against the government despite the virus.”

The current outbreak – and reports that it was covered up by Communist Party officials – has struck a deep chord with many in Hong Kong, where the protests were driven by a deep distrust of China.

The city also has vivid memories of Beijing’s cover-up of 2003’s outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome, or Sars, which killed almost 300 people in Hong Kong and crippled its economy.

Hong Kong’s government has come under fire for a shortage of surgical masks, choosing quarantine sites close to residential areas and a failure to quickly and fully shut its border with the mainland. Residents have struggled to buy key staples, from rice to toilet paper, due to panic buying that retailers and the government say is unwarranted.

With tourism down and the retail sector hurting as people stay home and avoid shops and malls, there’s a strong likelihood of more layoffs and economic pain. Flag carrier Cathay Pacific Airways requested that almost 27,000 employees take three weeks of unpaid leave.

That could focus more anger against increasingly unpopular leader Carrie Lam’s administration, said Wayne Chan, 29-year-old graphic designer, frontline protester and convener of the Hong Kong Independence Union.

“In the coming future, there will only be more people losing their basic way of life and the government will become their punching bag,” he said, while noting that “the risk of protesting has gone up” at a time when there is a deadly outbreak.

At the end of the day, the movement is about Hong Kongers’ ability to protect themselves, said Eric Lai, vice convener of the Civil Human Rights Front, which organised some of the city’s largest demonstrations.

“The slogan we have now among the community is ‘Recover Hong Kong, resist the virus of our times,”‘ he said. “The disease-prevention movement is part of a larger one, using civil society as a platform to keep people from the coronavirus. Whether it’s opposing the anti-extradition Bill, resisting police brutality, it’s all about protecting ourselves.” (Source: The Straits Times)