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HONG KONG Report: “COVID and Confusion” 17 July 2020

By Bill Stork

Cowering from Covid, I am once again under government restrictions. After five weeks of near-zero virus infection, Hong Kong is now experiencing its third wave of Covid, and despite the super effective HK Public Health Service and their tracing-tracking-testing-quarantine efforts we are seeing new record numbers each day, with yesterday hitting a new high of 67 cases – over half of which had no known source. In many cases where the source is thought to be, the residents are evacuated to one of the government’s isolation facilities for 14 days, and recently hotels that have little occupancy are offering their rooms and maintenance (not ideal due to carpeting and air conditioning).

Restrictions are back in place. All bars and eateries need to close at 6 pm. Face-coverings/masks are seen everywhere and are now required on all public transportation. Even some taxis refuse passengers who are not wearing face-coverings. HongKongers, since SARS, swine flu and avian flu, do know how to respond. Most significant here is the effectiveness of the media to inform the public of the current determination that viral droplets are airborne and have a long life. Thus ‘silent carriers’ can best protect the public from possibly infecting them by wearing a face-covering. No one is safe until all are safe, and HongKongers do not fight the advice of medical and scientific experts as to what to do Now, and not just wait for a promised vaccine; they trust the government’s advice.

I want to build on this concept of issues being politicized and disinformation rampant with regard to the recent US decision to enact the Hong Kong Autonomy Law and President Trump’s accompanying executive order ending US support for Hong Kong’s free trade status.

It is not just the Covid that has poisoned the atmosphere in Hong Kong. Certainly the failure of the US to cope with its virus crisis has emboldened China to be more assertive and aggressive as it strives to reposition itself as the global leader: greater effort to intimidate nations that are contiguous with the South China Sea geography that China claims; aerial flights over Taiwan; the first international use of its PLA in 30 years with the border conflict with India; aggressive diplomacy directed at Australia and Bhutan; … and for us here in Hong Kong, China is no longer pretending that the “one country, two systems” mantra still has any meaning. More on this draconian law later and the public response.

However, the media has been somewhat at fault. I won’t call it ‘fake news’ nor will I call it ‘misinformation’ … but while the headlines may be factually correct, the impression given is totally wrong!

Most recently a headline said that the New York Times was moving its staff from Hong Kong to Korea. But the headline gave the impression that this was immediate — and the truth is that a few will move soon, and that more might move by the end of the year, but the truth is that some will yet still stay in Hong Kong.

The headline ‘Trump signs executive order ending Hong Kong’s free trade status to punish China for its new national security law for Hong Kong’ is very wrong! Yes, this new law is draconian. But, in my view, the efforts of the US are somewhat short-sighted.

Hong Kong may perhaps become just another Chinese city, yet one with colonial characteristics that may prove difficult to erase or erode: a long history of judicial independence based on the common law; a longstanding financial peg of the local currency to the US dollar; a long history of being officially bilingual; a long history of a role as an important international economic hub, which may be marginalized by Trump’s recent actions. [His executive action, stated as a retribution against China for its new draconian law for Hong Kong, appears (to me) to be more of an effort to appease his own pre-election political base than to hurt China — which it won’t. Both Hong Kong and the US will suffer most from this action; China is not that dependent any more on Hong Kong having, since 1997, built up Shenzhen and Shanghai.] But there are 600,000 expats working here and over 1200 businesses invested here, and it is these that will be ‘punished.’

What is also not certain is how long the present energy/effort behind the Beijing-inspired law to suppress ‘terrorism’ and dissent will last, nor how much of a dent that current effort will make on a HK populace that continues to show a combination of apathy and resilience.

What also remains, however, is an executive-led government and civil service bureaucracy which has yet to find the means to listen to the public, especially its youth and university graduates who have difficulty finding meaningful jobs or affordable housing. Perhaps there will be a decrease in the protest activism/violence which, should the clusters of Covid cases recede, once again permit the return of tourism that previously helped prop up the economy at about 40%.
The economy here is in woeful shape … though I have just received the HK$10,000 for each HKID permanent resident to use to get the local economy going again (I put mine in the bank). I have yet to get the similar ‘stimulus’ from the US, though I did get a fulsome letter purportedly from Donald J. saying that the money was coming and that I should spend it to make the US even greater again.

What a strange world this decade is beginning to unfold and reveal!

~~~ ~~~ ~~~ Footnote ~~~~~~~~~~~~

One interesting result, though! I am beginning to see the use of the word “mainlandized” in reference to HK’s future:

Financial Secretary Paul Chan Mo-po brushed aside worries that the national security law would undermine the city’s attractiveness to investors, telling the forum that it was “subjective speculation without factual grounds”.
Pointing to figures that showed the Hong Kong dollar remained strong, with the Hong Kong Monetary Authority receiving inflows of US$100 billion, Chan said: “Not only has there not been a capital outflow in Hong Kong, there has also been a continuous inflow.”
At the same forum, Wang Zhenmin, a professor at Tsinghua University in Beijing and the former legal affairs director of the central government’s liaison office in Hong Kong, called the new law “mild and minimal.”
Wang said there was no reason to fear that the city would lose its freedoms, or become more like mainland China.
“With the degree of rights, freedoms and autonomy remaining unchanged, why would Hong Kong be mainlandised? It is impossible for Hong Kong to be mainlandised,” Wang said.

Source: SCMP

Bill welcomes your comments below.

2 comments to COVID and Confusion

  • David Scharff

    Bill — thanks for this update from the inside. It’s not really possible for us to see that otherwise, and even for the few of us that are somewhat affected by the chilling of relationships between China and the US (mine means that the book I’ve written on the Chinese family will probably not be published in China) it’s not really possible to find a balanced view in this unbalancing world. Thanks for your unfolding views.

  • Lee Bolman

    Bill–thanks for the update. Should we believe Wang Zhemin when he says there’s no reason to expect that the city would lose its freedoms or be mainlandized? Some press accounts I’ve seen say that the Great Firewall is descending on Hong Kong. When I used to travel in China, the heavy hand of the government was often visible, but almost never intrusive, except for the inability to reach many western internet sites. (I was always miffed when I couldn’t download the NYTimes Sunday crossword.) What are you seeing?