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Coronavirus threatens to fuel ‘perfect storm of discontent’ in Hong Kong

Riot police stand off against protestors at Wong Tai Sin district on August 05, 2019 in Hong Kong, China. Pro-democracy protesters have continued rallies against a controversial extradition bill on the streets of Hong Kong since June 9th, as the city plunged into crisis after waves of demonstrations and several violent clashes. (Billy H.C. Kwok/Getty Images/TNS)

Henry Ng is used to hearing the familiar refrain of pro-democracy chants after months of demonstrations in Hong Kong.

But when he looked outside his apartment window Sunday, he saw a protest of a different kind. Hundreds of black-clad demonstrators and local residents were locked in a standoff with riot police over plans to convert an adjacent public housing block into a quarantine site for patients infected with the coronavirus from China.

The confrontation ended with police repelling the crowds with pepper spray, but not after masked protesters threw petrol bombs inside the lobby of the proposed quarters.

“I wasn’t brave enough to go downstairs, so I just shouted through my window for the police to leave,” said Ng, a 20-year-old university student who lives in the border town of Fanling with his mother. “We don’t want a quarantine site here. It could harm families.”

After seven months of unrest, the arrival of the pneumonia-like virus in Hong Kong is landing like a gut punch — adding one more layer of volatility to a city racked by a social and political crisis that won’t go away.

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Hong Kong’s economy, limping from the protests and U.S.-China trade war, now faces the specter of an even greater decline in tourism and retail sales.

The Hong Kong government, battered by public opinion over its handling of the protests, is receiving widespread criticism for responding too slowly to the disease and deflecting pressure to fully close its border with China.

At a time when millions of Hong Kongers are resisting the mainland, the coronavirus and China’s response to it is providing one more reason to demand greater autonomy from Beijing.

“The coronavirus epidemic sits in the very center of the vortex of anger at an incompetent Hong Kong government, distrust of Beijing, and anti-mainlander xenophobia — all issues that have driven the past seven months of protests in Hong Kong — and, as such, risks becoming a ‘perfect storm’ of discontent,” said Antony Dapiran, a Hong Kong-based lawyer and author of “City of Protest: A Recent History of Dissent in Hong Kong.”

Hong Kong has eight confirmed cases of the virus, which originated from Wuhan, a Chinese city of 11 million in the central province of Hubei, and has spread to 13 countries beyond China.

Health officials on Sunday confirmed the first two cases in California, one in Los Angeles County and another in Orange County.

Hong Kong is particularly vulnerable as a major travel hub connected to China through multiple border crossings approachable by air, road, sea and rail. The city’s economy is deeply reliant on those connections — one of the chief reasons why Hong Kong’s death toll from the 2003 SARS epidemic was second only to mainland China’s.

After days of criticism that the government wasn’t doing enough to address the virus, Hong Kong’s embattled chief executive, Carrie Lam, announced dramatic new measures Tuesday partially closing the city’s border with China.

Those include closing rail and ferry links to China and slashing the number of local airline flights to the mainland in half. The busiest border crossing in the town of Low Wu will remain open, however.

Lam had been under mounting pressure to seal off the border, including from Hong Kong’s medical sector. The recently-formed Hospital Authority Employees Alliance is threatening to go on strike starting Feb. 3 if the Hong Kong government doesn’t close its border with China entirely.

Opposition party politicians have also called on the government to shut its borders with the mainland, arguing its health checks can’t prevent asymptomatic carriers of the virus. They accuse Lam of accommodating Beijing’s political priorities over Hong Kong’s health.

There’s growing support for “the government to close the border before it’s too late,” said Fernando Cheung, an opposition legislator. “Further inaction will definitely make the already weak government unable to implement its policies even if they are sensible ones.”

Even Hong Kong’s largest pro-establishment party conceded Tuesday that a temporary closure might be prudent, according to the South China Morning Post, underscoring how little political capital Lam commands at a time when effectual leadership is paramount, experts say.

During her news conference Saturday, Lam called the idea of closing the border inappropriate and impractical. Doing so would be a first for the territory since Britain handed it back to China in 1997. Hong Kong maintains a separate financial and legal system from the mainland under a “one country, two systems” principle.

Terence Chong, a professor of economics at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said closing the border would be a gross overreaction.

“It would be devastating,” Chong said. “There are so many interactions with China every day. People would panic. It would be like shutting down the stock market.”

Hong Kong, a city of 7.4 million about the size of San Diego, can ill afford another financial shock. Its economy entered a technical recession in October, its first in a decade.

Prolonged unrest, which resulted in the shutdown of Hong Kong’s international airport and parts of its subway system, led to a plunge in tourists.

Visitor arrivals fell 56% to 2.6 million in November, the most recent data available, compared to a year earlier, according to the Hong Kong Tourism Board.

Mainland tourists, who typically make up three-quarters of visitors to Hong Kong, dropped 58% to 1.9 million.

Their scarcity can been felt in Hong Kong’s high-end malls where once reliable tenants such as Louis Vuitton are struggling. The retailer owned by luxury conglomerate LVMH is reportedly closing one of its shops in the commercial district of Causeway Bay after failing to renegotiate lower rent.

Retail revenue plummeted 24% to $3.8 billion in November compared to the same time a year ago, according to the Hong Kong Retail Management Assn.

Things aren’t expected to get any better with the restricted travel out of China and the temporary closure of major tourist sites such as Hong Kong Disneyland.

The pall of fear over the illness grew on Tuesday when the government asked most civil servants to work from home until at least Sunday and urged the private sector to do the same. Many residents are now bracing for a repeat of the of the devastating 2003 SARS outbreak, when parts of the city looked abandoned.

“The economy is already not good and dying because of the protest movement. The virus is going to make it worse,” said a 57-year-old catering service worker who provided only her last name, Wong, and has seen business at her company slow to a trickle. “I see people wearing masks on the street like when SARS was most severe.”

Chong, the economics professor, said Hong Kong can do little other than to continue providing economic stimulus and ride out the storm. The virus may actually dampen the protest movement if supporters deem it unsafe to congregate in large crowds, he said.

One reason for optimism, Chong added, was that unemployment was not expected to significantly rise. Hong Kong’s labor market still needs more workers because of its aging population. It’s one of the prime reasons why Hong Kong’s property values, among the most expensive in the world, have held steady despite the turmoil.

“If you don’t have high unemployment then you won’t see people needing to sell their homes,” Chong said. “Also, a lot of people sold their homes during SARS, but they regretted it because the market bounced back quickly. Nobody will sell this time.”

That will only pay off if the current coronavirus comes and goes as quickly as SARS did. Until then, the Hong Kong government will have to manage the medical emergency more convincingly than it has the protests — which were initially focused on a proposed bill that allowed extraditions to China and morphed into broader democracy movement. Moody’s downgraded Hong Kong’s credit rating last week citing an “absence of tangible plans to address either the political or economic and social concerns of the Hong Kong population.”

At least in Fanling, the government appeared to cave to popular pressure to reverse its decision to use the Fai Ming Estate public housing block to quarantine carriers of the coronavirus. Lam said in her news conference Tuesday that the damage caused by protesters there was so extensive that it had to abandon the plan.

“People were already angry at the government,” said Ng, the resident who witnessed Sunday’s clash. “So when [the quarantine site was revealed], everyone wanted to stand up and protest.”

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© 2020 the Los Angeles Times