Coronavirus And The Changing Face Of Hong Kong Protests

Protests have been raging across Hong Kong for nearly a year. While the protests started in February as a response to the Fugitive Offenders and Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters Legislation (Amendment) Bill 2019, which would allow the extradition of criminals to countries like China, the central goals of the protestors were broader than the bill alone. Since the initial protests, the movement has spread from being solely focused on stopping the bill from passage to larger governmental reforms, specifically targeting police misconduct. Now, the coronavirus is fueling anti-government sentiments and changing the face of protests in Hong Kong.

Tracking the protests back to its early stages is essential to understand how the coronavirus is currently affecting the way demonstrations operate. On June 12, 2019, protestors came out with a list of five specific demands. First, the extradition bill must be withdrawn from the legislative process. The bill was withdrawn on October 23 of last year. Second, the government of Hong Kong had to change their characterization of the protests on June 12 by removing the portions that referred to the protests as “riots.” The government did change their characterization but kept mention of “riots” saying only “some” protestors participated. Third, the government had to release imprisoned protestors. They have yet to release the large majority of arrested protestors, and the large surge of arrests has led to the courts processing the cases to come grinding to a halt, according to Reuters. Fourth, the protestors required the government to establish an independent committee to look into police misconduct during the protests. The current committee lacks independence from political influence and relies on complete transparency from the police. During the protests, police fired tear gas into crowds and used batons to fight civilians. Finally, protestors called on Carrie Lam, the Chief Executive of Hong Kong, to step down, and universal suffrage for both the Chief Executive and the Legislative Council. Currently, a committee selects the Chief Executive, and representatives from major economic sectors fill 30 of the 70 Legislative Council seats.

While the government’s failure to comply with protestors’ central demands is the driving force behind the continued demonstrations, the coronavirus is quickly growing as an issue within the movement. Earlier this month, 9,000 medical workers went on strike for five days to show their disappointment in the government’s response to the virus, as reported by the South China Morning Post. But, the coronavirus is not just motivating protests, its also hampering them. Fear of the virus is driving a decline in the size of protests, and some protests were even cancelled in advance due to the virus. All of these fears were magnified after a 39-year-old man died from the virus in Hong Kong, but dwindling numbers do not spell the end of the unrest in Hong Kong. A study from Francis Lee, Professor at the School of Journalism and Communication, the Chinese University of Hong Kong, found that solidarity amongst protestors was strong enough to carry the protestors forward for months.

The central question then becomes, what will the government do to quell domestic uprisings? The demands of protestors are a good place to start. In the short term, the release of imprisoned protestors and drawing back the level of force authorized against protestors is essential. Police brutality and imprisonment only serves to fan the fire and feed anti-government sentiment. In the long term, reforms should be implemented to hold elections for both the Legislative Council and Chief Executive. The government should veer from protestors’ demands, and Carrie Lam should not resign. Once the election reforms are in place, Lam should hold her position until she is either re-elected or voted out of office in the first vote for Chief Executive. That will ensure she loses power if the people do not find her fit to lead, and retains power if the public does not want her representing them. It will also minimize the negative effects of a quick power transition caused by her stepping down. Forcing a transition in who holds power could result in worse governance in Hong Kong, and ultimately harm its citizens.

Christopher Eckert
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