Pandemic and protest in Hong Kong

Hong Kong has withstood months of hardship, but how have the protests evolved amidst the coronavirus?

A siege mentality – Dr. Peter Hamilton used the term to describe the foundations of discontent amongst protestors in Hong Kong. For the city, as part of the ‘one country, two systems’ government,  Hamilton highlighted the protestors’ fear of absorption into China. With this, there would be a loss of cultural identity and personal freedoms – a loss of self. The description resonates; the atmosphere’s mot juste.

Images portraying the outrage have periodically set Western media ablaze. A university fortified with students wielding bows. Protestors clashing with police masked to protect their identities (and with them, futures). These events have been symptomatic of an underlying dissatisfaction with the status quo – evidenced by the length demonstrations have endured.

Trinity College Dublin’s Assistant Professor of Modern Chinese History Peter Hamilton commented that the protests have died down amidst the coronavirus outbreak, largely due to the unsuitability of crowds. With this seeming lull in events, the city may once again fade from the headlines into the background.

For those in Hong Kong, there have been no such lulls, nor has there been since June 2019. Activist Jimmy Sham made worldwide headlines when images of his unconscious body showed the aftermath of a brutal beating. It can be easy to forget that Sham’s life and work carried on after the media coverage. Pro-democracy and a prominent member of the Civil Human Rights Front (CHRF), Sham was elected as a District Councillor by over 1000 votes by the Lek Yuen constituency in November 2019. Across the city, pro-democracy candidates were elected to local positions, starkly contrasting Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s descriptions of the side as a vocal ‘minority’.

Jimmy Sham

Facilitating an interview online, Sham spoke through an interpreter from his bustling office in Hong Kong. The small room was crowded with his colleagues – young and busy, wearing facemasks and busily hurrying around.

I asked him what life has been like in a city in turmoil since June 2019: “In the last few months, the most prominent event in Hong Kong has been the coronavirus. Within the consensus of protestors, we don’t want to have a lot of mobilisation through public gatherings.” This measure is not only in the interest of public safety, as Hamilton commented, but Sham spoke of a fear amongst the protestors.

“We do not trust the ethics of our government. As one of my fellows in my district said, if there was a confirmed case within the protest itself, it would really impact the whole movement itself.” Even within the context of the protestors demand for an independent investigation into police investigation, Sham’s worry seemed extreme, but demonstrated a genuine concern of not knowing what the government was capable of.

Citing recent surveys of public opinion, Sham put public support of Lam at just 9%. Far from restoring faith in the establishment through the public health crisis, Sham felt the police were using period as a chance to crack down further on the pro-democracy side:

“From these statistics, Hong Kong people are still really angry – there is still discontent and unhappiness going on. We can see the police [carrying out] massive [amounts of] arrests, especially amongst young people who are alleged to have participated in protests. During the time that the street protests have died down, the police have used [it] to persecute protest-related people. They’re also using it to expand their political persecution which is keeping people’s discontent with the police force.”

Yellow and blue

Descriptions of a city divided into ‘blue’ (generally considered pro-police) and ‘yellow’ (the protestors, considered pro-democracy) have appeared online. Sham described a situation that was more complex than this binary:

“For yellow, it is pro-democracy support – the resistance. Blue is more nuanced – it’s not just about the government or Beijing. They may not be happy with the radical resistance, and some are pro-police, but [few] of  them [are] pro-Carrie Lam. I don’t feel there is a division between the yellow and blue community in the district in which I’m elected.”

Hoping to unpack this, I asked if it is the police or the government that bears the brunt of the discontent: “I think it’s a comprehensive package that you can’t separate one from the other; the government from the police.” Tracing the history, Sham points to Lam’s initial (now defunct) extradition bill as the first proof of her priority of China over the people of Hong Kong.

“Because the policies introduced are against the people, normally and naturally, people go to the streets. In that sense, they will use the police to suppress the people.” This, he said, continued, and was most recently evident with the refusal to establish a hard-border during the coronavirus outbreak with China, despite establishing one with South Korea. This has led to a distrust of Lam, and the government, seeming to personally culminate in the issue of masks for Sham.

Hoping to slow or stop the spread of the virus, many in Hong Kong have taken to wearing masks that are changed daily. Lam and her government have announced consistently that they are an ineffective health measure. “I cannot stress enough people have lost trust completely in the government.. Despite Carrie Lam saying a lot of the time we don’t have to wear face masks as it might be a waste of resources, no people in Hong Kong trust her.”

Illustrating his point, Sham lifted the webcam and brought me around his office. At approximately 4pm in Hong Kong there was a queue stretching out the door of his office with boxes of masks for both adults and children. Sham said a box would cost 1/10th of the monthly pension of elderly residents in Hong Kong.

Equally Sham expressed a discontent in the use of public housing estates as quarantine centres, without the district councillors serving their role as go-betweens of information between the government and the population at large. He recalled, with an air of cynicism, that the reason for the lack of communication from the government was a fear of spreading the virus, and as such, no meetings or communication were scheduled.

There was a poster on the door, which Sham pointed out had his personal phone number as well as the office hours in which he could be reached. Determined he should be always available, he said: “That is my job, that people can reach me anytime – it is a responsibility that I should have. It isn’t a credit to me.” Meetings and handling casework are my two priorities, but are subject to change. “When the outbreak is over, our neighbourhood will be the priority and there will be some adjustments to my work. I’m eager to organise protests to let the people be heard.”

Considering his own past and the violence inflicted on him, I commented this was impressive, and asked if he struggled to return to activism following his hospitalization. After translation, he burst out laughing and grinned:

“It had more of an impact on my colleagues because they had to take care of me. Before October, I was a full time volunteer of the CHRF. My full-time job was to organise protests. At the time, most of the protests were rejected by the police. So whether I had been attacked or not, I would’ve ended up in my bed.” Despite the language barrier, his charm and humour were apparent – seemingly in no way dissuaded by what most would consider career-ending.

“Being attacked doesn’t require bravery. If you go to the front, willing to be attacked – that does require some bravery. [For me], it was random, and I wasn’t predicting it, so there was no bravery involved.”

Sham’s conception of self as a voice for the people in his district was evident. Commenting that the stability in his job was a rare blessing in the city, he did consider himself lucky. Others, he said, were forced out of their jobs or had taken leave without pay – his husband included.

Despite this, his opinion of the matters remained at a government level: “We can see that since 1997, the ‘One country, Two Systems’ has been redefined for a lot of Chinese, where its been narrowed and a lot of our human rights and freedoms has been restricted.” Grateful for his insight, I was left wanting a look into those less involved in policy.

A civilian’s perspective

Talking to Alex See over WhatsApp, weariness was the most prominent feature in his voice. Having first spoken to See when the protests began in June, I commented that it is hard to believe the demonstrations are still active. He agreed, and described a city that reflected that fatigue:

“It’s very draining. Some of the events that go on. Most people are really tired and exhausted in Hong Kong. They don’t feel inspired and feel really drained.” Describing broken traffic lights and vandalised shops, the landscape of the city had begun to mirror the psyche of its citizens. “They feel a loss of power, a loss of freedom of expression. They feel like they’ve lost their self-expression and are afraid of offending anyone. The atmosphere is heavy. Very heavy. Very draining.”

A resident of Hong Kong, See commuted to China three or four days a week for his job. Following the coronavirus outbreak, See has been working remotely, but described the city prior to the precautions.

36-years-old, the Hong Kong native was born to parents that had both immigrated in the 70s. Born in the 80s, he has been heavily involved in the LGBT community in Hong Kong. Having experienced discrimination throughout his life, it is the division that has sundered the city that seemed most prominent in his eyes.

A six-sided story

The schism of blue versus yellow was much more prominent in See’s eyes than Sham had described. Many shops and establishments reportedly have been labelled digitally, and will be avoided by the opposite binary. While hesitant to generalise, See felt that economic differences drive much of this divide: “A lot of people who are blue might be working in China, might be associated with that side. Usually they are not the people who have to worry about their income.”

While it was the now-dead extradition bill that sparked the initial outrage, See pointed to the underlying anxieties that exist for many in the city. “[For students], at the beginning it was more about living standard – young people can’t afford their housing. They won’t know how their future will be.”

Talking about his colleagues in China, he commented that most wouldn’t understand what is going on in Hong Kong and are influenced by limited media resources: “A lot of the news that is reported is one-sided. It’s one side of a six-sided story.”

Speaking of his own experience as a member of the LGBT community, he recognised the hatred and discrimination that has caused divides in the past. “If we have a chance, we need to listen and be there and be present and check-in our prejudice. We [need to] understand what prejudice is. If I go to church, I am prejudiced against them because I assume they’re homophobic, but I need to drop that.”

The sense of understanding and recognising nuance underlay everything See spoke to me about. While he didn’t defend the actions of either side, he commented: “I can empathise with the police. I feel like they are being used as a political tool. I think they are an easy target and as a shield for the government. It has happened before, to create chaos and to let chaos continue.”

Bridging the divide

In the eyes of See, restoring a sense of unity is key to resolving the situation: “What worries me the most is there’s no one standing up to restore the integrity of the law and they’re introducing the police as a too. We’re in it together, and we don’t want the situation to worsen.”

With the proposed extradition bill dropped, the pro-democracy side has set forth 4 parallels demands, one of which is an independent investigation into the conduct of the police throughout the period. “The law enforcers violating the laws, using excessive force. I see it that the upper management hasn’t restored order and integrity and the result will be destroying the fabric of society. The only remaining value of Hong Kong will be the system. When a city is broken – when the integrity is broken, I worry it will be really difficult to heal and to restore.”

When asked his opinion of the police, once again, he refused to justify or condemn. In this instance, the empathy was laced with a hint of unease: “When we see police, there is a sense of fear. I would smile at them before, but not now. We don’t know what’s going on. I used to believe police wouldn’t fire guns without reason, but now they’re so tired, so stressed, that they may just lose control.”

Speculating, he commented that those he knows in the police seem staunchly more pro-government than those in other areas of the civil service. See speculates that it is a result of having to justify their actions and approach.

Equally, being treated differently may fuel certain behaviours: “I don’t want to label. Labels are not necessary, [they’re] not true. If I want to change how I view the world, the last thing I want to do is to label. The more labelled they are, the more stuck they are in that way. If they believe they’re blue, they will act blue.”

Describing how friend groups in Hong Kong have disintegrated as a result of the political climate, See’s voice took on a sadness alongside the previous fatigue: “The blue or yellow ribbons is a way of dehumanising each other, and if we don’t get out of it… Sometimes we’re so desperate to believe that we create sides to justify our behaviour and our mistakes and our jobs. We really do dehumanise ourselves and others, and we need to question if this is true?”

An outside view

Hoping to understand all I had been told against a wider narrative, I once again consulted Hamilton for his opinions, particularly regarding the police:

“[They] have to be contextualised within the broader legal and justice systems in Hong Kong which have generally been a source of local pride. Law enforcement in general has been something that most people that have identified with Hong Kong, up until recently, were proud of.”

Explaining Hong Kong’s lack of democracy, Hamilton described the once-palatable compromise that had been reached “Both the police and the larger bureaucracy have been, generally, accountable and professional. In that sense, they’ve had integrity. Even if they haven’t been elected, they were doing their jobs to the best of their abilities without picking a side. There wasn’t an evil bogeyman behind the scenes. Now, people both in and out of government are increasingly suspect of that happening.”

Now, it seemed, the compromise had snapped. Use of tear gas, batons and violence had led to outrage, with a discontent for the system at large bubbling up. Temporarily stalled by quarantine, the anger underpinning this division lacks expression in the images it once bore. When measurements surrounding the coronavirus die down however, the schism that has split the city will be re-examined. Whether it can be mended, or will further crack is anybody’s guess.

Sam Cox

Sam Cox is a Staff Videographer at Trinity News. He is a Senior Sophister Psychology student, and a former Crossword Editor, Features Editor and Assistant Features Editor.