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A Letter from Hong Kong

A Letter from Hong Kong

Coronavirus may be keeping us at home, but the RSAA is lucky to have members who can give us views from across Asia.

This contribution is from Martin Purbrick (@mtpurbrick), honorary local secretary in Hong Kong.  Martin is a regular contributor to Asian Affairs


4 April 2020

GKpGPNBL_400x400The Coronavirus affecting us now is not the first time that we have lived through an epidemic in Hong Kong, and not likely to be the last. Hong Kong people have experienced Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in 2003, H5N1 Avian Flu in 1997 (killing six people and the first human transmission of this virus), and the “Hong Kong flu” in 1968 (named as the first reported case was in the city) which affected half a million residents.

We started to hear about Covid-19, the new Coronavirus, at the end of December 2019 (which seems a lifetime ago). In early January those of us working in large organisations activated our response plans, with employee communications, face masks distributed, frequent cleaning of everything (door handles, lift buttons, tables, toilets, etc), all of the things that we had learnt during SARS. Hong Kong people reacted quickly for one reason – They were scared. We were all scared not only because we know the death that epidemics can bring to large cities, but also because we have experienced the difficulty of trusting information from the government in mainland China.

Covid-19 came after six months of violent political protest and a crackdown by the police that seemed would never end. News media reported nothing else, people at work talked of nothing else, and we were all obsessed (and divided) by nothing else. Yet in early January the large protests stopped. This was due to more than the Coronavirus. The police have arrested over 7,000 people since June 2019 when major protests started, which has helped stop violence. The protest movement, which involves a wide range of civil society groups, changed strategy after success in the District Council elections and is now focussed on the September elections for the Legislative Council in which they aim to defeat pro-establishment parties and embarrass the governments in Hong Kong and Beijing. Yet protests continue, despite social distancing from fear of the Coronavirus.

On New Year’s Day the police dispersed a large peaceful march numbering according to the organisers hundreds of thousands. On 3 January, 20,000 teachers protested against government “white terror” (referring to efforts to silence people). On 19 January, tens of thousands attended a rally against the Chinese Communist Party, that was cleared by police firing tear gas. Small scale protests still occur frequently, usually to commemorate protest events such as the 21/7 attacks in the Yuen Long MTR (train) station, the 31/8 incident at Prince Edward MTR station, and the 8/1 2016 riots in Mong Kok.

The anniversaries of protests events illustrate the Chinese love of numerology. The protest events are remembered as 21/7, 31/8, 8/1, etc.  Carrie Lam, Chief Executive of the Hong Kong Government, is referred to by most local people as “777” (“chat chat chat” in Cantonese), which refers to the number of votes she obtained in the election for her position. The Cantonese in particular use the sounds of some numbers to associate with names. Cantonese for Four is sei, which sounds like the word for death. Eight is baat, which sounds like the words for prosper and wealth (I confess that I added 888 pounds to the bidding price for my flat in Edinburgh in an effort to have luck with the purchase!).

Protest slogans are widely popular, and have become virus slogans. During the protests people would chant in Cantonese “Heung Kong yan ga yau” (“Hong Kong people add oil”, meaning “keep going”). In July 2019, a Cathay Pacific pilot became a local hero when just before landing at the Hong Kong airport he said in a pre-landing announcement “Heung Kong yan ga yau”. Ironically, this also became the rallying cry in Wuhan when the locked down population started to shout out of their high-rise apartment windows “Wuhan ren ka yau” in Mandarin (“Wuhan people add oil”). In March residents from Hubei Province fought against Public Security Bureau (police) officers from Jiangxi Province after marching with police officers from their own area across the Jiuliang Yangtze River Bridge that joins both provinces, chanting “Hubei ga yau” (“Hubei add oil”). The cause of the clashes between Hubei and Jiangxi people (and police) was a tangled web as such incidents often are in China, but it brings us back to the Coronavirus as Hubei people who have been locked down for three months in their homes vented their frustrations.

The protests seem a very long time ago, although most of us fear that they will return in the summer as the government refuses to seek reconciliation and the protest movement is readying for the next round. No doubt when major protests do return they will replace the Coronavirus in the 24-hour news cycle. The top stories in the South China Morning Post this morning are “Is Hong Kong’s Basic Law standing firm at 30?” and “Hong Kong bars and pubs shut as coronavirus tally rises by 43”.

The first story refers to the 30th anniversary of the endorsement of the Basic Law, the constitution of Hong Kong, by the National Peoples’ Congress of China on 4 April 1990. The Basic Law is the foundation of “One country two systems” which was the basis for the return of sovereignty of Hong Kong to the Peoples Republic of China. Following the violent political protests of 2019, the dire unpopularity of the local government, as well as widespread local antipathy towards the governing system and culture of mainland China, many have suggested that “One country two systems” is not working. This issue remains the single greatest challenge facing Hong Kong in the long term.

The other story is of course about Covid-19, which has taken over all of our lives in Hong Kong and around the world. The number of confirmed cases in Hong Kong has reached 845. Hong Kong is doing well with a relatively low number of confirmed cases and only 4 deaths. Clearly that number can change and we all continue social distancing and careful hygiene.

Today is Ching Ming (Qingming), falling on the 15th day of the Spring Equinox, when Chinese people gather in family groups to sweep the graves of their ancestors and make offerings. This ancient Chinese tradition is affected as less people will travel to mainland China to visit tombs of ancestors and the government has banned gatherings of more than four people, which will cause them to stay away from graves. But Chinese tradition endures. Shops in Hong Kong selling paper products to burn for their ancestors to use in the afterlife, such as banknotes and expensive luxury items, are this year selling paper face masks, paper health care products, paper drugs, and even paper dolls dressed as doctors and nurses to assist the dead against the Coronavirus. Thankfully, Chinese culture has a solution to every problem.

Martin Purbrick

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