Hong Kong, China – Restaurant owners are forced by the authorities to submit their customers to contact tracing. Teachers must be tested for COVID-19 regularly once school resumes in person after Easter. Anytime more than four protesters stand together, they risk heavy fines from police for breaking social distancing rules.
These are the new realities of life in Hong Kong.
For most of the past year, the city has reported the most new positive cases per capita of any Chinese municipality and has battled local clusters like a mole game.
And the government here has resorted to draconian measures common in mainland China to combat the virus.
“Hong Kong leaders are under tremendous pressure from Beijing to contain COVID,” said Bruce Lui, senior lecturer at Hong Kong Baptist University and veteran political commentator.
“This is why they are not above the rule of an iron fist to deliver and show Beijing that they are serious.”
Beijing’s passage of the National Security Law last June, which criminalizes protests and most forms of political organization, has cast a veil over the freewheeling city of 7.5 million people, but health regulations also infringe on rights enshrined in the city’s own constitution.
‘No faith in the government’
So far, teacher Chloe Leung has done her best to avoid government checks.
As Leung teaches online, she was not yet undergoing the mandatory COVID-19 test every two weeks. Distrustful of the government, she said she wouldn’t get the hang of it unless it was to keep her job.
The second-year teacher was particularly alarmed by recent unprecedented cases of experienced teachers being censored, or even suspended, for alleged political content in their teaching materials. She wonders if the tests intended only for teachers – but not for students – are not a follow-up disguised as a public health measure.
“I have no confidence in this government. Little by little it takes away our freedoms, calls into question our bottom line to see how far it can get away and hopes that we become immune to all assaults, ”Leung told Al Jazeera.
– Henry Chin (@HenryChinPhD) April 2, 2021
Freedom of assembly has been a clear victim of Hong Kong’s authoritarian turn.
Less than two years ago, the protest marches of more than a million people encountered no interference from the police.
Now, under the Disease Control and Prevention Ordinance, even a handful of high school activists handing out leaflets on street corners are reportedly dispersed by police under threat of sanctions.
Critics have said the legislation, amended at the end of April last year to limit public gatherings and strengthen social distancing, has been “militarized” to end any rally the government disapproves of.
The amendment predates the National Security Law imposed on the city by China.
COVID co-option restrictions
For District Councilor Gary Poon, the government has co-opted the COVID campaign to quell dissent.
“This government has spared no crackdown,” Poon said. “It is obvious that the political persecution is more important to them than the fight against the virus.”
Last November, the entire pan-democratic camp of lawmakers was forced out of the city’s legislature after four of their colleagues were banned from service by Beijing.
Last month, 47 anti-establishment candidates who had run for a primary for the since postponed parliamentary elections were accused under the new security law of attempting to overthrow the government.
Counselors like Poon are rarely warned by health officials before cordoning entire buildings, or even entire city blocks, for mandatory testing.
Caught off guard, residents and workers were forced to stay in the perimeters overnight.
“ Ambush locks ”
Such “ambush” lockdowns, as the Hong Kong government called them, were common across mainland China when the pandemic began a year ago. But in Hong Kong, these measures were strongly condemned, even by some government allies.
In defense of her government, CEO Carrie Lam said during a press briefing in early February: “The lockdown is above all a preventive measure. What we are trying to do is to prevent the spread of infections so that the effectiveness of the [ambush] the operation cannot be measured simply by the number of cases detected. “
And among those who resent the government’s response, such as restaurateurs and their customers, a form of popular resistance has been forging.
Instead of having their customers scan the health department’s QR code and pass on their location, some owners have devised an alternative code that feeds into a Google Form that will be cleared every 31 days, during which time businesses are required by the authorities to keep the data. .
“The fear of being stalked is solid, especially in the current political climate. This is seen, at least in some quarters, as an opening of Pandora’s watch box, like what’s happening on the continent, ”said Dorothy Lui, senior member of the Public Health Research Collaborative, a policy advocacy group. trained in 2019.
“Remember that Hong Kong has always been a laissez-faire society. It just isn’t going well.
He, from Baptist University, believes Hong Kong citizens are preparing to live under more authoritarian rule even after the pandemic has ended.
“The writing is on the wall that an armed government is preparing to take over long after COVID is over,” he said.
“Now that the opposition has been eradicated and all protests have been crushed, Hong Kong officials will have no excuse but to respect Beijing’s will.”