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A Letter from Hong Kong – 21 May 2020

A Letter from Hong Kong – 21 May 2020

As Martin Purbrick (@mtpurbrick) leaves Hong Kong he reflects again on Covid-19 and Hong Kong’s relationship with China.

It is difficult to describe the Coronavirus situation in Hong Kong when most people in the city remain preoccupied with the continued downward negative spiral of the political situation. Yet now in Hong Kong the Coronavirus pandemic relates to the political situation.

The Coronavirus situation

Hong Kong people have done a remarkable job at minimising the volume of cases in the city. As at 21 May, there have been only 1,064 confirmed or probable cases of Covid-19, with 1.029 patients discharged after treatment, and only four deaths. This data is staggering in comparison to London which by 20 May had over 26,000 recorded Covid-19 cases and over 4,000 related deaths.

Almost all Hong Kong residents wear a face mask when outside, they carry hand sanitiser everywhere, and use alcohol wipes to clean hands, open doors, hold train or bus rails. Companies hourly clean all doors, elevators, common area surfaces, and desks. Restaurants, which have never closed, have provided two sets of chopsticks since 2003 (one to pick up food, one to eat the food) and now also provide an envelope for each diner to put their face mask into and maintain table hygiene. Customers entering restaurants and shops must have their temperature taken, an extraordinary feat in a city with around 15,000 restaurants that is described as a “shopping paradise” for the ubiquity of shops and goods to buy.

Hong Kong residents returning to the city from other countries are required to enter self-quarantine at home. Upon arrival at the airport they must report to the vast hall of the exhibition centre and have samples of throat saliva taken for a Covid-19 test, and then stay at a local hotel until the test results are provided the same day (or overnight).

There have been restrictions on entry to Hong Kong since the start of the crisis. From 27 January, no person from Hubei Province and no Hong Kong resident who has visited Hubei Province in the past 14 days can enter Hong Kong. From 25 March, no non-residents have been allowed entry to Hong Kong, and any non-residents entering the city from Macau, Taiwan or Mainland China cannot enter if they have been to another country in the past 14 days. Hong Kong people have not been locked down in their homes, but the territory of Hong Kong has been locked down and cut off from the outside world.

There is no health-related lockdown for Hong Kong people, but there is an increasingly stringent political lockdown as civil rights are continuously eroded by the exercise of increased authority by the Central Peoples Government over the city.

The political situation

The lack of credibility of government officials has led to a lack of trust in the Hong Kong Government. This is illustrated by the government distribution of cloth face masks to every resident. The “CuMask” is issued to every resident who applies, but is described by local people as being an acronym for the “Chinese Underwear Mask” as the masks look like a large bra cup. Such are the divisions in Hong Kong society that some pro-democracy supporting “yellow” restaurants are reportedly banning any customers who wear the government issued mask. A mobile App is available listing around 1,300 restaurants which are “yellow” and another 1,600 that are “blue” (pro-government).
The lack of trust of government officials results from continual acts that restrict freedoms in the city.

Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK) has been under great pressure following consistent independent reporting of the protests, related violence, and police use of force. That independence is being lost as the Hong Kong and also the Central Peoples Government have criticised RTHK for their reporting. A satirical show has been cancelled after an episode parodied the Hong Kong Police with a police officer wearing a rubbish bin liner and suggesting that the police had plenty of protective gear whilst medical staff did not.  The Hong Kong and Central Peoples Government have criticised RTHK after a reporter asked a World Health Organisation official why Taiwan could not be a member of the WHO, which Chief Executive Carrie Lam called a breach of One Country Two Systems by not following the “One China principle”.

This week the Independent Police Complaints Council (IPCC) released their long-awaited report that found the Police had not acted inappropriately in the major protest related incidents that have caused such anger amongst many Hong Kong people. The IPCC noted some minor areas for improvement by the Police, but generally substantiated Police actions during the contentious incidents.

On the “7/21” when villagers and triads attacked people at the Yuen Long MTR station, the IPCC “did identify deficiencies in Police deployment and other Police action in response to the events.” Yet the IPCC says nothing more about this finding and instead stresses that it is not justified to accuse the Police of “collusion with triads”.

On the “8/31” incident at Prince Edward MTR Station in which video recordings show the beating of protesters, the IPCC stated that this “does not show the whole picture” and that there were “many protesters changing their clothes to disguise themselves as protesters”. This does not quite address the point of why it is acceptable to beat anyone who is not armed and not resisting.

On the firing of tear gas into several MTR (underground) stations, the IPCC stated that “most protesters wore respirators” and “the use of tear gas did achieve the purpose of dispersing the violent protesters who had refused to leave the station.” This does not show any care regarding any innocent people who were not protesters who happened to be in the station, or indeed why it is acceptable to breach police standing orders and fire tear gas into an underground train station at all.

All of these incidents were complicated situations with violence from protesters creating chaos that would test the best of any police officers in the world. But the key point missing from the reaction of the Hong Kong Government, the Police, and the establishment in Hong Kong is that accountability is a concept that must be applicable to all for it to be meaningful. The violent protesters are being held to account for their actions, but the police officers whose discipline lapsed and the police management who failed are not accountable. The Government officials who have proven politically inept remain in post waiting for retirement. This remains the basis of division between the majority of Hong Kong people and those who govern.

The past years of discontent in Hong Kong have worsened to the point where the Central People’s Government has caused local people to cease to believe that One Country Two Systems has any reality or meaning. This was emphasised on 21 May when a spokesman for the National People’s Congress, which is meeting in Beijing, stated that the NPC Standing Committee would put forward proposals to set up legal and enforcement mechanisms in order to uphold national security at the state level in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region. This means that the Central People’s Government will legislate for national security in Hong Kong without the need for the Hong Kong Government to initiate legislation of its own.

Such national security legislation would most likely criminalise activities or calls relating to secession, foreign interference (which can be widely interpreted), and terrorism, all of which can be defined variously by the Central People’s Government and hence cover acts that are interpreted by the Chinese Communist Party. This is not what was envisioned prior to 1997 as how One Country Two Systems would function, and the promised autonomy for Hong Kong has been gradually eroding for the past two decades.

* * *

After arriving in Hong Kong in 1988 to join the Royal Hong Kong Police, marrying my beautiful wife who is from the city, having two wonderful sons born in the city, and meeting so many great friends and colleagues, it was time for me to leave in May 2020 and return to Scotland. It is sad to go at this time when most Hong Kong people are so fearful for the future as the PRC Government tightens its direct control over the city. There is a feeling of despondency amongst so many Hong Kong people as they fear that the One Country Two Systems concept is dead and the future will bring increasing repression by an autocratic Hong Kong Government dominated by the directives of the Chinese Communist Party.

This is too pessimistic. Hong Kong people have proven themselves to be extraordinarily resilient for over a hundred years navigating the arrival of the colonial British, the decline of the Qing Dynasty, the war with Japan, the civil war between the Nationalists and Communists, and the long years of turmoil during communist rule. Hong Kong has been a haven for enlightened Chinese intellectuals, for dynamic Chinese businessmen, and for free thinking Chinese people.

The Chinese revolution of 1911 would not have occurred had Dr. Sun Yat Sen not been able to study in the city at the Hong Kong College of Medicine for Chinese and plot the overthrow of the Manchu Qing with his associates.

The Chinese economy would not have grown so quickly after the Cultural Revolution if the legion of Hong Kong Chinese businessmen had not invested in their motherland, leading to the growth of Shenzhen, Dongguan, and Guangzhou into economic powerhouses.

The future development of China will not be as bright without the free-thinking Hong Kong people who meet adversity with creativity and energy. It is the people of Hong Kong who are the future of the country, and no doubt they will show their normal patient resolve to navigate the efforts to suppress them.

加油 香港人 !

Martin Purbrick

View Comments (23)
  • Among the best commentaries available in 2020 on HK affairs .
    I do hope Martin will continue to comment in as many forums as suits him .

  • Thanks for the describing the incidents in factual and your encouragement to HKer. appreciated your support to hkg all these years.
    All the best to you and your family.

  • Excellent commentary on a very sad situation. But good cause for long term optimism with the references to how HK has shaped China

  • Thank you for your comment. It’s so difficult to explain to oversea (or who is outside this city – even they are in China Mainland) what is going on the in the last 12 months . As a peoples who born and growth in HK may perceived by other as we have a strong bias to China Government. But as a HK citizen, educated before return to China system, most of people will have strong disagreement with the way government (HKG & China) regarding the law / act they made & most of the infrastructure projects they build as many of them are not following SOP (standard of process) but favor to various parties.

    Since you are a foreigner who live in HKG for a long period and with the knowledge of police force dept. Your comment and point of view is more fair to both parties. A brief but solid summary to provide the background, reason.

    No one in HKG would like to break the law and drive our city dying. But it’s sad as it is happening, and it is done by the government, political & police force.

    Thank you can wish you and family have a peaceful life in Scotland.

  • Thank you Mr Purbrick for telling the truth to the world. Please continue to support Hong Kong and we will continue to fight for freedom and save our home. God bless you.

    I will always support Hong Kong from here in Australia.

    • Mr Purbeck is as neutral as Himmler explaining the Holocaust. His very biased viewpoint is NOT reflective of the actual reality of HK.
      The HKPF have by and large maintained their title Asia’s Finest though a few rogues, a fraction of a fraction of 1% have sadly allowed their human instincts overawe them.
      His description of certain events are clouded by his almost pathological hatred the PRC and the HKPF.
      His departure from HK is celebrated, though he, of course, can and gas escaped the final destruction that 1C 2S will now befall due to the impossible demands a fraction make.
      A realistic examination of the HKPF responses to violence against them and the community the honourably serve will show considerable restraint and minimal force. Unlike the black shirted rioters, the HKPF has killed no one yet nor have any of the absurd claims of torture, abuse, rape been sustained.
      Facts please, not Western fiction.

  • Thanks for protecting Hong Kong citizens as a Royal Hong Kong Police. You deserve to stay in a place with freedom and democracy.

  • Thank you for presenting a fair and accurate picture of the situation in Hong Kong, after 32 years living there you are truly a Hong Konger. Being an ex-policeman your comments on the IPCC report are impartial and truly reveal who the demons were. Hong Kong did find ways in the past to circumvent various hardships, but this time Hong Kongers are facing the most evil law imposed by the most evil regime. It seems no escape unless a miracle comes along. Best wishes to your life in your homeland Scotland.

  • A great and accurate perspective, thank you for raising points many of us at different times have witnessed.
    It is most disturbing the latest developments come at a time of a pandemic when we look to form a united front which Hkers as citizens have done in dealing with the Corona virus.

  • Thanks so very much for your love of HK. You’re part of us and the geographical distance is nothing. All the best with you & family back in Scotland.
    Meet soon!!!!

  • I trust that this “Letter from Hong Kong” will not be your last, Martin.

    Your first letter A REPORT OF THE 2019 HONG KONG PROTESTS (https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/03068374.2019.1672397) was also an honest and fair assessment of what continues to befall the Hong Kong we have served and loved for so many years.

    At your younger age, you are right to leave and ensure your family’s welfare back in Scotland. Approaching our dotage, we intend to remain as long as we are allowed to.

    We look forward to reading more letters on the fast-developing Hong Kong situation from you in the coming months.

    Semper Fidelis

  • Personally I think many people are more despondent about the black clad thugs who are trying to enforce their version of ‘democracy’ on Hong Kong than our poor government. Any government in any country would find it difficult to function when barbaric xenophobic thugs roam the streets beating up people, burning MTR stations and vandalising businesses with links to the mainland.

    Personally I think many people in Hong Kong are despondent at the pathetic and childish antics of the Pan Dem legislators who are causing havoc and showing a lack of respect to the legislature & their voters.

    The government of the HKSAR has made mistakes. The police have made errors – particularly when threatened by black clad nilists baying for their blood. However all this has happened as a direct result of these rioters whom the Pan Dems repeatedly refuse to criticise.

    As a person with a similar background to you in law enforcement I understand many of your arguments.

    However the vast majority of people in Hong Kong just want to get on with their lives, bring back prosperity and believe that we are being forced down this street by the black clad nilists & Pan Dems as much as by the CCP.

  • no matter how you worded your passage, i would never agree to this statement

    //All of these incidents were complicated situations with violence from protesters creating chaos that would test the best of any police officers in the world. //

    You failed to mention the intentional misfiring of tear gas to the protest area maintained and planned by the police, the very same group of subject who gassed everyone in sight without any legitimate reason, on June 12 during the Anti-ELAB protest. You also failed to mention many incidents that the police is close to committing war crime. (close to because they have not been tried and I am not a Judge of any sort) Who is testing the best of who? I would have to say this is very true to every country on the Earth that there is a super valid reason that police can never be army and army can never be police (except some authoritarian country) You cannot wipe out your conflict of interest here that you too are/were a police officer and nothing would change my mind should you have what kind of connection to my country which is catching its last few breath. You should have left Hong Kong for your whatever home country many years ago.

  • I trust that this “Letter from Hong Kong” will not be your last, Martin.

    Your first letter A REPORT OF THE 2019 HONG KONG PROTESTS (https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/03068374.2019.1672397) was also an honest and fair assessment of what continues to befall the Hong Kong we have served and loved for so many years.

    At your younger age, you are right to leave and ensure your family’s welfare back in Scotland. Approaching our dotage, we intend to remain as long as we are allowed to.

    We look forward to reading more letters on the fast-developing Hong Kong situation from you in the coming months.

    Semper Fidelis

  • Correction : Hongkongers are not Chinese.

    This “Chinese” narrative is a global propaganda pushed by China when they took over the mainland.

    We don’t call Germans Europeans when we are talking about German issues. HK people are Hongkongers first and foremost.

    You can address them as Hans, or Cantonese…etc if you want to bring ethnicity in the content.

  • In 2019, Hongkongers alarmed the free world ‘HK today, the world tomorrow’. Just days into 2020, the world is invaded by CCP virus!
    A wonderful piece to farewell your journey in Hong Kong. Thanks for all the support and having made this amazing city your home for 30+ years. Anyone who support freedom and democracy are Hongkongers, borderless. I urge everyone to continue to support the city, which in turn can protect any democracies from CCP invasion.

  • Martin,
    Thank you for this thoughtful description and analysis of the events dominating Hong Kong these past months. I remember fondly the all too brief time we worked together in Asia. I learned a lot from you in that time and now again learned more from this essay.

    Best wishes to you and yours as you begin a new life chapter in Scotland.

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