Ineffective handling of Hong Kong’s COVID-19 outbreak igniting further opposition against mainland China

07 May 2020
By Hayley Shiel-Rood
Ineffective handling of Hong Kong’s COVID-19 outbreak igniting further opposition against mainland China
As the COVID-19 pandemic has dominated the global news cycle, many political issues of significant import have fallen from public attention. One such issue, of considerable significance for the politics of the Indo-Pacific, is pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong. While the COVID-crisis has acted as a short-term deterrent for street demonstrations, China’s handling of the pandemic is simultaneously stoking further opposition to the Hong Kong status quo.

Hong Kong's History of Protest

Hong Kong’s recent history has been marred by frequent mass protest. These began in 1997 following the return of territory to the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Since this time, the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) has maintained a status of being an autonomous region of the PRC, under the framework of ‘one country, two systems’.

Commencing in 1997, there have been annual protests on July 1 to oppose the establishment of HKSAR. But it was in 2003 that large crowds of protesters began attended the rally, triggered by the proposed introduction of Article 23, which allowed the HKSAR government to enact laws to prohibit acts of sedition or subversion against the state.  

Protests continue to be held annually to commemorate the 2003 movement, followed by the very public 2014 ‘Umbrella Revolution’, a movement voicing the continued dissatisfaction towards perceived attempts by the PRC to instil mainland-nationalist ideologies into Hong Kong society.   

The PRC has attempted to promulgate a collaborative state-building sense of nationalism, while implementing greater central control over the political, economic, and ideological domains. Unsurprisingly, attempts to successfully assimilate Hong Kong into a unified Chinese nation has catalysed counter-protests. Indeed, they have seen a rise of peripheral nationalism, where citizens of a culturally, ethically or linguistically different periphery resist being incorporated by a centralising state.
Hong Kong’s current position demonstrates it being in the midst of a centre-periphery conflict, with two forms of competing nationalist ideals informing both sides of the conflict. COVID-19 has acted as a form of catalyst in intensifying the feelings of unrest and discontent fuelling peripheral nationalism.  

COVID-19 Fuelling Tensions

Now one year after the 2019 protests, a very different sense of discontent has emerged. Dissatisfaction towards the PRC’s response to COVID-19 in Hong Kong has resulted in widespread condemnation from citizens.

A recent poll conducted in February 2020 by the Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute (PORI) showed government distrust was rated to be at 75.9%.  

The PRC’s unwillingness to rapidly shut the border between Hong Kong and the mainland has sparked criticism, with many protesters believing border closures could have more rapidly contained the spread of the virus. As of April 30th 2020, Hong Kong had a reported 1038 cases of infection and 4 deaths.

The delayed response in implementing safety protocols, particularly for healthcare professionals, was a further cause for concern. In February, more than 5000 public sector health workers carried out a five day strike, organised by the trade union- Hospital Authority Employees Alliance.  

Other triggers included attempts to convert local clinics into specialised COVID-19 treatment centres, which were strongly opposed due to the clinics being located in close proximity to residential areas.
More violent measures were carried out, with police locating five homemade explosive devices in multiple sites across the city. These included the Caritas Medical Centre in Cheung Sha Wan and aboard a train at Lo Wu station. Numerous petrol bombs have also reportedly been thrown at police stations and patrol cars, demonstrating the continued brewing unrest.

An unexpected development since the outbreak of COVID-19 is the newfound co-operation between pro-Beijing supporters and anti-Beijing protesters. Previously there has been a clear division between these camps. Yet recent developments have shown that many who previously supported the PRC have shifted their position due to perceived mishandling of the pandemic.  

Many who have joined the movement have done so out of newfound opposition due to growing unemployment and fears of socio-economic repercussions. Other newcomers have included affiliates of pro-Beijing parties, the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong and the Federation of Trade Unions. Their shift in association is believed to be fueled by feeling let down and abandoned by the PRC government.

The Future of Hong Kong Protests

Both the PRC and HKSAR governments have utilised the pause in public protests to crack down on the growing pro- democratic movement, through the arrest of 15 high profile activists. These prominent figures include Martin Lee, an 81-year-old barrister, frequently referred to as the “father” of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement. Others included barrister Margaret Ng, Jimmy Lai (the founder of Next Media), legislator Leung Yiu-chung and social activist Leung Kwok-hung.

The charges brought against the group include the joining and organising of illegal rallies. These refer to the 2019 protests, which ironically- given the age of the arrested activists- mainly involved younger Hong Kongers acting without formal direction.

The arrests may be a means to ensure a pro-PRC majority will be successfully elected in the coming September Legislative Council elections. Since the establishment of the HKSAR in 1997, there has never been an elected pro-democratic majority.

Protesters have already been using the imposed isolation restrictions to regroup and prepare for a second wave of street protests once the threat of COVID-19 has passed. The brain of the movement has shifted to online through social media, with the pause in public protests allowing for activists to reorganise and return to the streets once the threat of the pandemic has passed.

This suggests that large protests will soon resume, potentially with an even larger support base. Already this week a group of more than one hundred people gathered at the International Financial Centre shopping centre, continuing anti-government protests.

Whether protesters will achieve their desired outcome is uncertain, the demands for greater democracy and less mainland intervention suggests the movement will not settle, inciting the slogan “five demands not one less”.


Hayley Shiel-Rood
Hayley Shiel-Rood
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