Silence in Hong Kong: a Focused Purpose Achieved

Angus Forsyth responds to Martin Purbrick’s 6 July blog with an alternative view of the imposition of the National Security Law in Hong Kong. 

As everybody worldwide now knows, we in Hong Kong are now subject to a new Hong Kong Basic Law Schedule 2 Supplemental Enactment by the National People’s Congress of China to safeguard the national security of China (including of Hong Kong as an integral element of China).

In my view – and in the view of many legal commentators in Hong Kong, this new law is centrally focussed upon infringements against the national security of China, including Hong Kong as set out in its specific offence sections.

It is not intended to have, does not have and will not have the effect as widely and confidently stated worldwide of blowing down and exploding the entire concept of “One Country Two Systems” which was and is effectively created and protected and guarded by the Basic Law for Hong Kong which remains otherwise unaffected. 

In fact, Article 2 of the New Law expressly provides that human rights and rights and freedoms including freedoms of speech, of the press, of publication, of peaceful association, assembling, procession and demonstration enjoyed by residents of Hong Kong under the Basic Law and the provisions of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights as applied to Hong Kong since before 1997 shall all be protected in accordance with the Basic Law.

This is a total and express endorsement of rights essentially emphasing continuation of the recognition of and protection of Human Rights in Hong Kong and certainly not available in China itself.

It is clear to me that all commentary upon the new law has completely and inexcusably omitted any reference at all to Article 2 and by doing so has also omitted the basic premise of express preservation of the One Country Two Systems policy of China under the Basic Law for Hong Kong which is extremely important in that Article 2 is not only a special re-iteration of the protections of the Hong Kong community and society under the Basic Law but is also a special exception for Hong Kong to the general law of China – a legal system which contains no such provisions.

 Article 3 further states clearly that a person is presumed innocent until convicted by a judicial body with the right to defend in judicial proceedings specifically protected.  Double jeopardy of trial or punishment for a second occasion is expressly excluded.

In general therefore, this topic has been of prime international interest and in the view of many in Hong Kong has been misinterpreted, misrepresented and ignorantly – often innocently – taken as a confirmation to suppress all the rights of Hong Kong residents under the Basic Law which are in fact expressly preserved.

This law has a specific focus of :-

“Secession of Hong Kong from China”; and

“Subversion” the overthrowing of the system of the PRC or its government or of the Hong Kong Government; and

“Terrorist Activities” defined to include a wide range of personal violence or sabotage of public facilities; and

“Collusion with a Foreign Country or with External Elements to Endanger the National Security of China”.

Each category provides for separate penalty for acts accessory to each of them.

These sections are broadly drafted with the intent to catch any activity which transgresses any of them and it is reasonably clear that the spreading by any person and in any way of any such activities including the possibility of advertisement in whatever form is quite definitely construable as an offence against the national security law and subject to its criminal sanctions.

From my position as a practising lawyer in Hong Kong over the last 49 years and with the intention to continuing to practise law in Hong Kong for the foreseeable future I cannot see myself as in any way affected by the new national security law.

As is well known, the circulation by whatever party (still certainly unknown to law abiding persons like me) of activities of any kind falling specifically within the categories identified above, but certainly including marches, placard design and holding, graffiti in public places and violence against the person of individuals or against public transport, electric power gas or other facilities including telecommunications or the internet would be committing an offence.

On the 6 July implementation rules for the new law were gazetted taking effect on 7 July.  These include email of Messages Endangering the National Security and Requesting for Assistance providing that if the Commissioner of Police has reasonable grounds to suspect that an electronic message published on an electronic platform is likely to constitute an offence or likely to cause the occurrence of an offence endangering national security then with the approval of the Secretary for Security he may authorise a designated police officer to request the message publisher, the platform service provider, posting service provider and network service provider :-

(i)      to remove the message;

(ii)     restrict or cease access by any person to the message; or

(iii)    restrict or cease access by any person to the platform or its relevant parts.

Failure of the publisher to cooperate immediately enables the police to apply to a magistrate for a warrant to seize the relevant electronic device and take any action for removing the offending information or alternatively a warrant to authorise the police to request the relevant service provider to provide the identification record or depiction assistance as required.

The same implementation regulations apply to the endangering of national security and interception of communications and in each case a warrant from a magistrate is an essential precondition to action.

There is a further obligation on the Hong Kong Government to promote national security education in schools and universities including (inter alia) the media and the internet.

It is worth setting the above out in some detail because I am not aware from keeping abreast of the worldwide coverage of the new national security law for Hong Kong in the United Kingdom, in Europe, in the United States, in Australia and also in regular periodical magazines such as Economist, that any consideration whatsoever has been given to these elements with the result that a glass half full is misleading and wrong.

Again, as a long time resident of Hong Kong I am perfectly satisfied myself that what we saw as “protesters” marching and raising questions about Hong Kong democracy and freedom over the last six months of 2019 would have been fully and absolutely acceptable had they continued, as they began, to be of a totally peaceful character.

However, they did not remain and continue of a totally peaceful character and became extremely violent extending to physical personal injury to members of the public in general some of whom were simply innocent and some of whom disagreed with what the “protesters” were seeking.

A construction worker had seen himself as standing up for justice when confronting protesters who were vandalizing a railway station.  He tried to stop black-clad protesters from smashing glass windows and damaging facilities at the local Mass Transit Rail station.  He got involved in a scuffle on a footbridge when hardcore protesters suddenly appeared and poured flammable liquid on him and then set him alight. 

He spent three months in hospital with burns over 40% of his body and in court last week in Hong Kong at the trial of two of the people accused of disorderly conduct in the leadup to the incident he informed the court that he was standing up for justice but, given what happened to him, he further informed the court that he was foolish and should have simply informed the police.  Apart from the two defendants on trial last week the culprits behind the fire attack and the lighting of the flammable liquid poured on the gentleman concerned have not been found.

Apart from this extremely vicious and fundamentally worldwide unreported incident two of Hong Kong’s leading universities were savaged by “protesters” including the Hong Kong Polytechnic University at which damage estimated at approximately HK$300,000,000 was caused through a one month occupation by “protesters” to the total exclusion of the entire university curriculum on campus.

However, what really inflamed the National People’s Congress in China was the constant chanting of the mantra that Hong Kong should be independent of China – something which I have always regarded and continue to regard as a completely impossible concept in any event.  This mantra is now to be a criminal offence not only because of the continued chanting of it by “protesters” but also as a direct consequence of the physical occupation and destruction of the Hong Kong Legislative Council Chamber and the ransacking of the Hong Kong China liaison office – something which absolutely stung the core of the Chinese Government to stimulate the counteraction which we have now seen in the passing of the national security law.

Since the passing of that law there has been silence which was basically the intended effect.


Angus Forsyth



As silence is imposed, freedom is a whisper in Hong Kong

6 July 2020

Martin Purbrick looks at the impact of the Safeguarding National Security law in Hong Kong

At 11.00pm on 30 June 2020, Hong Kong people were silenced by the Chinese Communist Party and the concept of One Country Two Systems ended.

At that time the new national “Law of the People’s Republic of China on Safeguarding National Security in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region” was promulgated by Carrie Lam, the Chief Executive. The new law was implemented directly by the Central People’s Government, passed by the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (NPC), added to the Annexes of the Basic Law (the constitution of Hong Kong) as a national law to take effect in the Special Administrative Region, and then signed into effect by Carrie Lam.

The implementation was direct and without consultation with Hong Kong citizens. Even the government and business elite were not shown the text of the law in advance of it being approved by the NPC. This illustrated the feeling of the Central People’s Government that not only could the population of Hong Kong not be trusted to be loyal, but the governing elite could not be trusted to competently implement law and maintain order.  Jean Pierre Cabestan, political science professor of the Hong Kong Baptist University has said that “There was a mood among mainland officials that we needed a second handover of Hong Kong to China, and we’re moving toward that”, and that “I don’t think Beijing trusts the Hong Kong elites any more.” [1]

The Safeguarding National Security law takes effect 17 years after the government of Tung Chee Wah, then Chief Executive of Hong Kong, failed to pass a less harsh form of national security legislation and was eventually forced to resign after hundreds of thousands of Hong Kong people protested against the proposed law. The new Safeguarding National Security law is far more strict in its terms and severe in its punishments, with some deeply disturbing sections that undermine One Country Two Systems as well as established rights in Hong Kong.

Article 12 requires that a new Committee for Safeguarding National Security must be formed by the Hong Kong Government, but this is to be “under the supervision of and accountable to the Central People’s Government.” [2]  Luo Huining, director of the Liaison Office of the PRC, has been appointed as the National Security Advisor to the Central People’s Government on the Committee, chaired by the Chief Executive. This is another example of the Communist
Party of China senior representative in Hong Kong, Luo, being in a position of authority over the executive government.

Article 16 requires that the Hong Kong Police will create a new department for safeguarding national security, the head of which must be approved by the PRC office for safeguarding national security. “Qualified professionals and technical personnel” from outside Hong Kong may be recruited to provide assistance in safeguarding national security, which will lead to PRC intelligence and law enforcement staff being placed inside the Hong Kong Police. The Police have been given wide powers of search, confiscation of travel documents, restraining property, deleting published information, intercepting communications, and requiring people to answer questions (i.e. no right to silence), without needing authority from a Judge or Court.

There are new criminal offences of Secession (Article 20), Subversion (Article 22), Terrorist activities (Article 24), and Collusion with a foreign country or with external elements to endanger national security (Article 29).  These offences are not clearly defined and left vague enough for them to be applied based on widely varying circumstances. Life imprisonment can be given to persons found guilty of them.

The Central People’s Government will establish an Office for Safeguarding National Security (Article 48), whose staff will be from the Central People’s Government “national security authorities”. The new office has a wide remit to oversee Hong Kong efforts, to collect intelligence, and to handle complex cases involving foreign countries or serious situations. Most worryingly, such cases will be prosecuted in mainland China (although there is no mention of what legal power will be used to transfer suspects). The staff of the Office will not be subject to any checks by Hong Kong law enforcement and have immunity to local laws.

The leaders of the new Office for Safeguarding National Security indicate what approach this organisation is likely to take. The new head of the Office is Zheng Yanxiong, with Li Jiangzhou and Sun Qingye appointed as deputy heads of the office. [3]  Zheng is best known for his work leading a crackdown on the villagers of Wukan in Guangdong Province in 2011, and his last post is as secretary general of the Guangdong branch of the Chinese Communist Party. [4]  Li Jiangzhou, one of the deputies in the Office, is a senior official of the Ministry of Public Security, experienced working with the Hong Kong Police from the Liaison Office,
who reportedly was previously head of the 1st Bureau, known for domestic security and the pursuit of dissidents, terrorists, and subversives. [5]  Sun Qingye, the other deputy, is believed to be an officer from the Ministry of State Security, which engages in espionage, counter intelligence, and political security. [6]

Taken together, the leadership group of the Office for Safeguarding National Security has experience of Communist Party discipline (Zheng), political policing (Li), and political intelligence (Sun). This suggests the most likely structure of the Office and their priorities.

The content of the law has shocked many Hong Kong people into silence and is likely to inhibit protests against the Hong Kong or Central People’s Governments. The silencing of dissent was swift. Joshua Wong, Agnes Chow, and Nathan Law, the leading members of Demosisto, a pro-democracy youth activist group, resigned from their party positions and the group disbanded. Nathan Law fled from Hong Kong before the law came into effect as he feared that he would be prosecuted for testifying before the US Congress in relation to the situation in Hong Kong. There are many reports of Hong Kong people deleting their social
media histories on Twitter, WhatsApp, and Telegram, and many switching to Signal (which is reportedly more secure).

Fear is the intended outcome of the Safeguarding National Security law. Steve Tsang, director of the China Institute at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, said that the law is “a bloodless version” of China’s 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, and that the objective is to intimidate and terrify the people so that people don’t even think about protesting again, hence avoiding a repeat of the 2019 pro-democracy protests. [7]

But on 1 July 2020, the first day of the Safeguarding National Security law, despite the refusal of the police to give permission for the long-held protest on the 1 July public holiday, “the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region Establishment Day”, a few thousand people protested on the streets and in shopping malls.

The Hong Kong Police said on Twitter that “Around 370 arrests, including 10 (6M & 4F) for breaching #National Security Law, have been made today. A total of 7 officers were injured on duty. Among the serious injuries, one was stabbed by a rioter with a dagger and three were hit by a rioter driving a motorcylce” (sic).

A police officer was stabbed in the shoulder when he ran alone to chase fleeing protesters. That is a crime and the person who stabbed the young officer should be charged with wounding if he is identified and arrested.  It is certainly not, however, “terrorism”, which is what the Hong Kong Police have been labelling some actions by protesters. A protester who rode his motorcycle through a group of police officers has been arrested for “Terrorism” under the National Security law. The motorcycle was flying a flag with the words “Liberate Hong Kong Revolution of our Times”, a popular protest slogan that the Hong Kong Government said on 2 July is illegal to state openly, as it refers to secession and is hence an offence under the National Security law.

To reiterate how people break the law by dissenting, the Hong Kong Police used new flags which state “This is a police warning. You are displaying flags or banners / chanting slogans / or conducting yourself with an intent such as secession or subversion, which may constitute offences under the “HKSAR National Security Law”. You may be arrested and prosecuted.”  Hence the intent of the National Security law is made clear.

The creativity of Hong Kong people was shown on 1 July, the first day of enforcement of the National Security law.  The Hong Kong Police proudly announced on their Twitter feed that “A man was arrested for holding a Hong Kong Independence flag in Causeway Bay, Hong Kong, violating the National Security Law. This is the first arrest made since the law came into force.”  What the Police did not say (or realise) was that the flag had the word “No” in tiny letters written before “Hong Kong Independence”.

Other people protesting sought to avoid being accused by the Police of the offence of Secession by holding blank sheets of white paper in the air whilst protesting .

Several restaurants that were part of the “Yellow Economy”, referring to the colour associated with the protest movement and the shops that support it, have taken down yellow post-it notes that had pro-democracy and anti-government messages and replaced them with blank notes.

The blank post-it notes summarise the situation that Hong Kong people find themselves in. They can think for themselves, they can dream, but they cannot speak out their views. The Safeguarding National Security law has the effect of silencing a vibrant civil society in Hong Kong that could contribute to the development of China. This is clearly not desirable to the hard-liners of the Chinese Communist Party who dominate policies at the moment. The appointment of PRC officials such as Luo Huining, Zheng Yanxiong, with Li Jiangzhou and Sun Qingye, is indicative of the hard line approach from the administration of Xi Jinping. These are not the pragmatic officials in the mould of Zhou Zhiyang, Wen Jiabao, and Zhu Rongji who led the political and economic opening up of China from the 1980s.

The law is intended to strike fear into people so that they do not protest, and to set an example for others that dissent is futile.  As silence is imposed by the Chinese Communist Party, Hong Kong people must whisper their freedom as they wait patiently for the liberalisation of China that many of us hope will come.

Martin Purbrick

[1] New York Times, In seizing control, China sidelines its allies in Hong Kong, 20 June 2020 ( )

[2] The Law of the People’s Republic of China on Safeguarding National Security in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, Chapter II, Part 2, Governing Bodies, Article 12.

[3] Xinhua, State Council appoints officials for central gov’t national security office in HKSAR, 3 July 2020 ( )

[4] South China Morning Post, National security law: Beijing appoints tough-talking party official Zheng Yanxiong to lead powerful new agency in Hong Kong, 3 July 2020 ( )

[5] Matthew Brazil, Hong Kong: Chinese security officials arrive, 4 July 2020 ( )

[6] Ibid.

[7] The Atlantic, Hong Kong is a colony once more, 1 July 2020 ( )




In Afghanistan, Coronavirus Threatens More Than a Medical Catastrophe

Rupert Stone looks at the likely impact of coronavirus in Afghanistan and anticipates worrying consequences reaching far beyond the medical challenge


On Eid this year, a bizarre scene unfolded in eastern Afghanistan.  Government officials, led by the national security advisor, prayed at the grave of former socialist president and secret police chief, Mohammad Najibullah. Najibullah came to power during the Soviet-Afghan War as a proxy of the USSR. But the waning Soviet Union cut off funding, and his regime swiftly collapsed. Civil war ensued, and he was murdered by the victorious Taliban in 1996.

Thanks to coronavirus, the current Afghan government might suffer a similar fate. Its main foreign backer, the US, is currently withdrawing, as the Soviet Union did in the 1980s, and may accelerate its pullout due to concerns about the virus. COVID-19 has also smashed the American economy, and could lead the US government to cut off financial aid. If that happens, the Afghan government will almost certainly disintegrate.

Afghanistan is uniquely ill-prepared to cope with this pandemic. More than forty years of conflict have left the country in ruins, with crushing poverty and a desperately weak healthcare system. Given that even developed states like the US and UK are struggling to respond to COVID-19, what hope does that leave for one of the poorest countries in the world, which last year ranked 170 out of 189 on the UN Human Development Index?

So far, however, the figures seem to be mercifully low, with around 18,000 infections and 300 deaths. Afghanistan’s infection fatality rate (the percentage of those infected who die) is below 2%. Britain, by contrast, has a rate of 14%, Italy 14.3%, and France 15.2%.

South Asia has seen surprisingly few fatalities from the coronavirus. In India, for example, around 3% of those infected have died. In Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka, the rate is even lower. The reasons for this are unclear. Some have hypothesized that young demographics make South Asian people more resilient to the disease. In Afghanistan, for example, 60% of the population is under the age of 25.

But the data is likely incomplete. Many people might die at home, either because they cannot afford a trip to hospital, or because widespread violence makes travelling dangerous. The cause of death in corona patients may not be identified, given that test kits are required to diagnose dead people with the virus, and there is a massive shortage of equipment in Afghanistan.

So far, Afghanistan has only tested a tiny proportion of its 37 million people, and the real infection rate is likely much higher. Indeed, a random test of 500 people in Kabul revealed that one third had contracted the virus.

The government has estimated that 25 million Afghans could eventually be infected. If even a small percentage of that number require hospitalization, the country, which has little more than 10,000 hospital beds, will be overwhelmed.

War makes Afghanistan especially vulnerable to the virus. The conflict with the Taliban has been escalating since international forces started to withdraw several years ago and now ranks as the deadliest in the world.

A peace deal signed by the US and Taliban in Doha in late February offers some hope. Under the terms of the agreement, the remaining American forces will depart gradually in the next fourteen months in return for a Taliban commitment to renounce terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda and negotiate a political settlement with other Afghan political factions, leading to a ceasefire.

The US has started to remove its troops, but concerns about coronavirus spreading in the ranks are accelerating the withdrawal. American officials apparently believe that fifty percent of the Afghan security forces have contracted the disease. President Trump may reportedly pull out completely in time for the US presidential election in November this year, way ahead of the May 2021 deadline stipulated by the Doha agreement.

A weaker American troop presence could undermine the peace process. Foreign countries might cut financial assistance to Afghanistan as their own economies reel from coronavirus-related lockdowns. This would quickly annihilate the Kabul government, which depends on foreign aid for 75% of its budget.

Even before the virus struck, poverty had been increasing in Afghanistan, and 80% of Afghans now live below the poverty line. According to recent data, Afghanistan has one of the lowest life expectancies in the world, and some of the highest rates of infant and maternal mortality. Chronic medical conditions such as measles are endemic.

Afghanistan is also especially vulnerable to climate change, with recurrent natural disasters such as a severe drought in 2018-19 and flash flooding last year. Those destroyed people’s homes and livelihoods, exposing more than ten million Afghans to acute food insecurity even before corona emerged.

The pandemic has forced the UN to issue a famine warning. The country relies on imports for most of its basic food, including wheat. But supplies have been restricted, driving up prices. Lockdowns of cities threaten daily wage labourers. The World Bank forecasts a “deep recession” in 2020, after years of sluggish growth and high unemployment.

The government has found it hard to enforce social distancing. This should come as no surprise given Afghan cultural norms that include regular mosque attendance and frequent physical contact. Added to that, households in Afghanistan often contain several family members living under a single roof, increasing the risk of infection.

The country’s borders are also porous, making it easier for people to enter and spread the virus. Between 1.5 and 3 million Afghans live in Iran. Even before the pandemic, Afghans were flooding back across the border as the Iranian economy weakened. Millions of people have also been displaced internally by the conflict and recent drought.

Already this year, hundreds of thousands of Afghan migrants have returned home. There are no quarantine facilities on either side of the frontier, and few medical checks. It is no surprise that Herat, on the border with Iran, has been the epicentre of the outbreak.

Tens of thousands of people have also crossed over from Pakistan. The border was sealed initially, but the Afghan government begged for it to be opened so that stranded Afghans could return. Efforts to quarantine returnees failed.

Then there are the tens of thousands of prisoners living in filthy, overcrowded Afghan jails with inadequate medical care, making them particularly vulnerable to the spread of the virus. The Afghan government has decided to release at least 10,000 prisoners to slow the outbreak.

Weak healthcare is a major problem in Afghanistan. Hospitals are understaffed. There are 0.3 doctors per 1000 people. There is a lack of personal protective equipment. Many medics have contracted the virus, but must continue to work given staff shortages and the demands of the war. Ventilators, hand sanitizer and testing capacity are very limited.

Medical facilities have been targeted by insurgents throughout the conflict and forced to close. One of the worst attacks occurred in May, when Daesh terrorists stormed a maternity hospital in Kabul, killing mothers and babies. The hospitals that still function are becoming increasingly expensive. Only 25% of Afghans have access to quality healthcare.

The Taliban operates a shadow government in areas that it controls, including a health commission that oversees medical care. The group responded to the corona outbreak with videos and messages advertising its efforts, including a film of socially-distanced hygiene workers in white protective gear receiving instructions.

Whether the group is actually doing anything to combat the virus is another matter. The Taliban was reportedly using a fake thermometer gun to test people’s temperature, for example. The organization is very adept at employing propaganda as part of a hearts and minds campaign to win over the rural population and boost its legitimacy.

Despite all this, there are glimmers of hope. Months of political chaos following a disputed presidential election last September recently came to an end, when the two contenders, president Ghani and former chief executive Abdullah Abdullah, reached a power-sharing deal. Both the Taliban and Afghan government honoured a three-day ceasefire over Eid, and more prisoners have been exchanged.

But the situation is still very precarious. The Ghani-Abdullah deal is vague and fragile. High-level members of the Taliban have reportedly been infected with the virus, weakening the group’s unity and increasing the risk of infighting at a time when it is supposed to be negotiating. Intra-Afghan talks have been delayed, and, even if they begin, progress will be slow given the volatile nature of Afghan politics and intensifying public health emergency.

The coronavirus may be with us for some time. Previous pandemics have been lengthy affairs. The Spanish Flu, for example, lasted for years, and its second wave of infection was even deadlier than the first. There is a real risk that Afghanistan will buckle under the pressure and descend into another period of civil war. One can only hope that it defies the odds and avoids such a catastrophe.

Rupert Stone


China’s Responsibility for the Covid-19 Crisis – Should we be cautious about pursuing it through the courts? – Nick Kenny

Nick Kenny holds a master’s degree from the University of Oxford, and is now studying at the University of Law in London

The UK is approaching 40,000 deaths, the USA has passed 100,000, and the world has reached the 350,000 mark. Recession and severe economic downturn seem inevitable, if not already here. Individuals and leaders have been looking for someone to hold responsible, and around the world blame has quickly attached to our governments whose policies are affecting our lives so radically.

In turn these governments have sometimes sought to shift the blame elsewhere. In the United States, the Trump administration has been quick to brand Covid-19 the ‘Chinese virus’, laying responsibility at the door of their geopolitical opponent. Is there any legal basis by which this blame game can be played out, and could it result in meaningful compensation for this terrible loss?

Various commentators have in recent months been suggesting that China may have some responsibility, under international law, for the crisis the world is suffering. There seems to be some evidence that China may have, in the early days of the virus, under-played or under-reported its danger, even repressing those who raised the alarm. Oft-cited has been the case of Li Wenliang, a Wuhan-based doctor based who, after voicing concerns about the new virus online, was forced by the police to retract his statements and acknowledge he had ‘severely disturbed the social order’. He sadly died in early February, and his family have since received an apology from the Chinese Communist Party.

Others allege there is further evidence of a wilful failure on China’s part to properly report the virus. It seemingly withheld information from the World Health Organization (WHO), while delaying information about human-human transmission and waiting until February 14th to announce the infection of 1,700 healthcare workers. The latest example is the disappearance of Chen Qiushi, an activist who had been publishing reports detailing and criticising the Chinese government’s response. He was last heard from on February 6th, and to this date his whereabouts and condition remain unknown.

What might have been the effect of this delay? As always, it is difficult to work out the counter-factual, but a model from the University of Southampton suggested that if China had taken stronger measures one, two, or three weeks earlier the number of cases might have reduced by 66%, 86%, and 95% respectively.

Yet, even should these failures be proven on the facts – which the Chinese government would surely dispute vigorously – could there be any legal remedy against the Chinese government?

There do seem to be some rules of international law that China may have breached. First, let us return to 2005 and the aftermath of the SARS epidemic, which claimed 774 lives from 2002-2004. Under international pressure China accepted, along with the other WHO members, the revised International Health Regulations (IHR), a binding treaty designed to prevent another similar outbreak.

Under Article 6 of the IHR, China has an obligation to notify the WHO of a potential ‘public health emergency of international concern’ within 24 hours, and to continue sharing with the WHO timely and accurate information about it. Under Article 7, if it has evidence of an unexpected public health event within its borders that might constitute a ‘public health emergency of international concern’, it must promptly inform the WHO.

On the evidence as we have it, it seems likely that China has not fully complied with these obligations, especially in the first few weeks of January. As Professor John Mackenzie, adviser to the WHO emergency committee, told the FT:

“there must have been more cases happening that we weren’t being told about … I think there was a period of very poor reporting, or very poor communication … There was a period there, I think had [Beijing] been a bit stronger earlier on, they might have been able to restrict the number of cases not only in China but also overseas.”

However, even if there is a case for the breach of these obligations, how could such a lawsuit be pursued? The IHR themselves have a dispute-resolution mechanism under Article 56, whereby the parties may submit to arbitration to resolve the problem. However, the chances that China would be willing to consent to such arbitration seem slim.

There is also some possibility that China’s alleged failings could be pursued at the International Court of Justice (ICJ), as one writer, Peter Tzeng, has suggested. Article 75 of the WHO Constitution stipulates that any dispute about its interpretation or application may be submitted to the ICJ. Can a case be made that China has breached any part of this Constitution?

It is possible that China’s alleged delay in reporting the virus may engage Articles 63 and 64 of the Constitution. The former requires that states communicate promptly to the WHO any official reports pertaining to health published in the state, and the latter requires it to ‘provide statistical and epidemiological reports in a manner to be determined by the Health Assembly’. The problem is, Article 63 only creates an obligation to communicate reports that are ‘published’, yet the main allegations are precisely that the Chinese government failed to publish this information in the first place.

There would be similar difficulties in arguing a breach of Article 64. The ‘manner’ in which these reports are to be communicated under Article 64 has been expressly stated by the Health Assembly to be the Nomenclature Regulations (Article 6 Nomenclature Regulations), not the IHR. Perhaps it could be argued that the reporting requirements of the IHR impliedly fall under the remit of Article 64, but it would be difficult to thread that needle.

If we move beyond international law, there may be the possibility China could be pursued in domestic litigation, as a report from the Henry Jackson Society has claimed. Broadly speaking, states are immune from claims in domestic courts under the principle known as ‘state immunity’. In the UK the State Immunity Act 1978 does contain certain exceptions whereby a state’s immunity will be lifted, generally for wrongs committed on UK territory, but it would be difficult to fit a claim against China for its coronavirus response into this.

Meanwhile, in the United States a claim has already been filed in the Florida courts against China for alleged mishandling of the crisis. This claim attempts to get around the US’s own ‘state immunity’ law, the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA), by arguing that there is an exception in that act for commercial activities, but it seems doubtful whether this will work.

However, there is some hope for such a suit from the recent past. In 2016, so as to allow claims against foreign states accused of sponsoring terrorism, Congress passed the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act, which narrowed ‘state immunity’ in US courts so countries alleged to have sponsored terrorism, like Saudi Arabia, could be sued. Perhaps Congress would be willing to do this again and lift China’s state immunity here, but this is far from its priorities for the moment, and will probably stay that way for a while.

Even if these international or domestic courts did agree to give such lawsuits a substantive hearing, it seems highly unlikely China would abide by any judgment requiring it to pay out. We can compare here what happened in 2016, when China was found by an arbitral tribunal to have breached the United Nations Convention on the law of the Sea (UNCLOS). The case was brought by the Philippines, who were disgruntled at China’s expansive claims over swathes of the South China Sea. In 2016 the tribunal made an unequivocal ruling in favour of the Philippines, but China has flatly refused to acknowledge or abide by the decision to date.

Indeed, this is the general problem with most of the legal avenues discussed above. A fundamental issue with international law is that there is no stringent enforcement method when states are found to have committed some wrongdoing. It usually rests on countries’ good behaviour, plus diplomatic pressure when other states are willing to apply it. As China’s disregard for the UNCLOS arbitral award shows, there can be few consequences when a country as diplomatically powerful as China wishes to ignore inconvenient judgments.

There is one further remedy countries could impose on China, however. Should a case manage to reach somewhere like the ICJ, and should an order for compensation be awarded that China disregards, states have the final remedy of ‘self-help’. This is the principle under international law that injured states may, should another state be in breach of an international law obligation (like failing to comply with a judgment of the ICJ), suspend its own legal obligations towards the offending party (Article 49 of the International Law Commission’s Draft Articles on Responsibility of States for Internationally Wrongful Acts (ARSIWA)). Such countermeasures may not breach human rights or humanitarian obligations, or take the form of a threat of force (Article 50 ARSIWA). Most other measures are ‘fair game’, however.

Should they wish, then, countries could therefore suspend their obligations under the World Trade Organization towards China, or even, as one commentator suggests, broadcast Western media or the mistakes of the CCP in China.

This would clearly be a drastic move, and would rest on the strength of the diplomatic and political ‘backbone’ of other countries to take these steps towards China. It remains to be seen whether any country would be willing to be so confrontational towards its political and military might.

Perhaps this would nevertheless be possible, however, and perhaps it might force China to pay out to those who have suffered so terribly from this virus. However, it would be a long and tortuous process, taking many years to bring a suit to an international judicial forum, prove the case on the facts, and then successfully enforce the judgment. Stepping back from the legal basis of such a challenge, therefore – would it be a good idea?

Even if a state confident enough to bring such a case could be found and it proceeded to a substantive hearing, the factual arguments would be highly contentious and politically explosive. Though few disagree that a sober analysis of what went wrong in the global response, and how we can improve in the future, would be valuable, it seems doubtful that the contentious space of a courtroom would be the best place to do this. China would no doubt dispute the facts energetically and aggressively. Therefore, proving that China has breached its international legal obligations may turn out to be more trouble than it is worth.

It would also only be possible to claim compensation for loss that China’s breaches had caused. In the Bosnian genocide case the ICJ stressed that an injured state must show a ‘sufficiently direct and certain causal nexus’ between the breach and its own loss before being able to claim compensation. Determining quite how far global suffering can be said, in this legal sense, to have been ‘caused’ by China’s alleged failings would be a herculean challenge.

In arguing these issues in court, China would inevitably use the opportunity to publicise what this endeavour may have aimed to avoid in the first place: other governments’ culpability for Covid-19 suffering. Part of the purpose of bringing China to court would be to put blame at their door. However, the factual arguments, in determining whether other countries’ losses were caused by China’s failures in the virus’ early stages, would surely bring out the vital question: how effective were other countries’ responses to Covid-19?

In the realm of policy responses to the crisis, no country is wholly blameless. Every state can likely have some of its decisions criticised. Having, it seems, successfully controlled the virus, China has in recent weeks seen a dramatic increase in cases imported from other countries that have seen less success. Therefore, if states started suing China for their Covid-19-related losses, China could see it as an open invitation to do the same. It might argue that, if other countries had controlled the virus better, Chinese citizens would have suffered less as well.

In other words, once the door is open to such lawsuits, the allegations could go both ways. This is surely not what any actor on the international stage wants. Adding fuel to the fire of a fractious international order in the crisis’ aftermath would not be in anyone’s interests.

The same goes for the outcome if a judicial award for compensation were, against all the odds, obtained against China. Given its history with the 2016 UNCLOS award in the Philippines case, it seems doubtful it would abide by such an order, meaning other states may have to resort to suspending their own obligations towards China to bring it to ‘justice’.

Would this be a good idea, however? To have effect, such measures would need to seriously harm China’s political or economic interests, such as suspending trade obligations towards it. However, these measures would of course harm the rest of the world that relies on supply-chains passing through, or originating in, China. China would also probably take reciprocal measures in response, causing even further global harm.

Overall, this would most likely isolate China while driving a wedge in the international order at a time, in the crisis’ aftermath, when greater co-operation and negotiation would surely be needed.  The irony is that pursuing the strict application of international law could lead to the very thing international law was designed to prevent – namely the fracturing of the international order and decline in global co-operation.

Perhaps, then, it would be best to pursue remedies for the enormous suffering and loss from this crisis in the diplomatic, rather than the legal, sphere. Certainly, any state thinking of pursuing China in international judicial fora should think very hard about the path it is choosing. Though they may have good legal grounds, the practicalities involved, along with the damage such a route could do to international relations, should not be taken lightly. As in every legal issue, the different sides must be balanced carefully before any decision is made.


Nick Kenny



The Singapore Circuit-Breaker: COVID-19 in a City State

Eleanor Thorp has shared this view of  the successes and uncertainties of Singapore’s life with the coronavirus pandemic

24 May 2020

Singapore did not lockdown officially, we embarked upon a circuit breaker.   Following a couple of months of global praise for its official response with contact tracing and isolation the key tactics, and relative calm from the population, an influx of cases from abroad (returning students & business-people as well as foreign residents) and the arrival of the virus in the foreign workers dormitories punctured Singapore’s confidence and lead to a rapid cessation of almost all non-essential activity.

What is deemed essential has become a fascinating insight into the predominant culture, as have the examples of those who have “broken the rules”.  Initially cake shops stayed open for delivery, as did the bubble tea stands and almost all restaurants – you could not eat in but you could takeway or use a delivery service. When the lockdown was announced, the ministerial press conference spent longer on a discussion of packaging supply for takeout than it did on the closure of schools. Eating out in Singapore is standard for many people almost every day.  The Prime Minister spoke directly to his generational peers a few days into the circuit breaker saying “We want to meet our friends, visit our grandchildren, stretch our legs, and resume our familiar routines — qigong sessions, karaoke groups, hanging out for kopi or a beer with friends. But please understand: We are telling you to stay at home for your own safety. Older people are more vulnerable to the virus.”  A few days later it was reported that some older Singaporeans were given “stern warnings” for continuing to eat together in public areas of their housing units.

As the spread continued, the lockdown tightened.  Shops that sold only sugary goods closed.  The cupcake shop near me sells quiches now, but no cake. The supermarkets dealt with an initial rush of panic buying and now seem calm – you scan a QR code to check in, have your temperature taken, shop in peace,  pay and scan another QR code when you leave.   Apparently 30% of us have voluntarily downloaded an app called Trace which allows the Ministry of Health’s contact tracers to identify who you have been within a few metres of for more than 15 mins if you enter a special code – it will of course only be used if you are found to be ill or identified as having been in contact with someone who has Covid.

The barbers and hairdressers were open – but only for haircuts; highlights and lowlights were inessential. Then they closed, but only for a couple of weeks.  The idea of ill-kempt Singaporeans deprived of a shave and trim was obviously too much for the powers that be.

Workplaces closed promptly.  The Ministry of Trade and Industry conducted inspections and when too many people who could telecommute did not, new regulations strictly controlled headcount and office access.  My own company in the semi-conductor industry has remained active. Our manufacturing and logistics teams have permission to work on site as part of an essential industry, everyone else works from home. For those of us lucky enough to have helpers and space, it’s fine.  For colleagues living with parents and children in small flats where all outside facilities have been sealed off, it is demanding, but I don’t hear people complain.  We are #sgunited and #Singaporetogether, and the vast majority of us support the government’s actions.

A darker side of Singapore has been seen in the response to the outbreak of Covid in the dormitories that house migrant workers – up to 300,000 of them, mostly from the sub-continent, male and under 40. When the virus hit this community was when lockdown became unavoidable and they represent the vast majority of cases.  Whilst the official communications have been compassionate, and PM Lee has assured them and their families of Singapore’s commitment to keeping them safe and looking after them if they fall ill, the reporting of infections has gone through different iterations.   Initially “imported cases” were separated from community spread. Then cases were split: Singaporean/PR (permanent residents), work pass holders (ie white collar foreigners), work permit holders who live in the community (blue collar workers), and work permit holders who live in the dormitories.  Whilst it makes sense to communicate that the vast majority of cases are occurring in dormitories which are now sealed off from the general population, the segmentation of community spread by immigration status has seemed at odds with Singapore’s multi-ethnic, globalized culture, and some of the local online commentary has been insensitive at best and racist and discriminatory at worse.  Indian Singaporeans have debated this issue and its impact on race relations, at least from what I have gathered from friends and Facebook, but the majority have not seemed to question it.  The Prime Minister and his government seems to be doing their best to keep the genie in the bottle, but it is a reminder that Singapore is not always as united as it seems.  In the last couple of days, new cases have been split by “Cases in Community” and “Cases residing in dormitories”; somewhere a communications tsar is watching and tweaking and improving.

The migrant worker data is fascinating.  With well over 30,000 confirmed cases, there are currently only 8 people in intensive care, and we have had just 23 deaths from Covid. Partly is would seem to be because the virus has been kept out of carehomes – which are relatively uncommon in Singapore anyway – but also because the majority of migrant workers are basically healthy, or they would not be allowed to be here. For those who are interested, the data can be explored here:

With the number of community cases falling, we are getting ready for the circuit breaker measures to ease. It will be a slow reopening. A local joke circulating translates “Circuit Breaker” from Singlish to English as “Lockdown”, and “Gradual Opening” and “Phase 2” are also translated as “Lockdown”.   Some businesses will reopen – the wine shop we hope, the flower shop, the cake shops, the nail salons, the furniture makers. Initially households will be allowed visitors – but only 2, they must be related and they must be children or grandchildren. Visiting is for support and for childcare not for socializing, yet.  A best guess is that we will be able to eat in restaurants and hawker centres in July, when pools and playgrounds will likely also open.  We are all strongly encouraged to continue to telecommute – if you can work remotely you must, and if you need to go to work for a specific machine or activity you must go and go home.  Offices will remain mostly empty.

Pre-schools and schools will reopen gradually in early June – all teachers are being tested for Covid before the reopening, and masks or faceshields will be compulsory for all kids over 2. My son hates wearing his mask – he wants everyone to be able to see his smile – and it makes me a little sad to think of the daily interactions blocked by the inability to read people’s expressions.   However it’s less sad than the schools being closed, and kids adapt quickly.  His kindergarten will have the children make faceshields as part of their space exploration curriculum, and I am sure he will love it.  For older students it seems there will be split schedules and the challenges of homebased learning will continue. For Singaporean parents whose children are used to a whirlwind of “enrichment activities” after school, and whose kiasu nature is famous, it’s very challenging.  The children I see in my neighborhood seem happy though – there is far more bike-riding, walking, and badminton going on in gardens than was common before.

For many people, going back to normal means going back to travelling.  People in Singapore travel for fun, for work, and for family (c.1.7m of the 5.7 millions people are not citizens / PR).  It’s a small place and people like to get out – and currently we cannot even cross the causeway. Many people seem to be planning to travel at Christmas – but no one I know has yet bought a ticket.  We are planning travel in hope, not in expectation.  Some combination of testing, quarantine and caution may allow it but currently if you leave and are on a work pass you have to apply to come back and only truly essential workers are given permission.  If you are local and you leave, when you return you will pay for your own healthcare if you fall sick.  Everyone coming in must quarantine in a government mandated facility – there are rumors of quarantine packages available at the Hyatt and the Mandarin Oriental.

Singapore is supposed to have an election soon, and the impending retirement of the Prime Minister has been much rumoured.   His great leadership & competence during this crisis, and the muted but persistent criticism of some of the “4th Generation” politicians who have been in the spotlight may lead to a longer tenure than perhaps he had hoped for.   If you spend some time on Instagram with PM Lee, where he now wears a mask in his profile picture, or listen to his speeches which are routinely delivered in Chinese, English and Malay, you cannot be but reassured by his compassion, wisdom and understanding of his people, whatever your view of Singapore’s political system.  He knows this time is hard for the elderly who want to play mah jong, he knows the work permit holders are afraid, and that people are tired of being at home.  But as he said “we can’t revert to status quo ante. The circuit breaker has worked, and our situation is improving. But the battle against COVID-19 is far from over. We cannot stay closed forever, so we have to get used to a new normal, adjusting our routines to live and work safely despite this global pandemic. Let us continue working together to keep COVID-19 at bay. We will emerge stronger from this experience.”  He’s speaking for everyone.

Eleanor Thorp

Some interesting articles that provide other context:






Another decade, another aspect of living in the United Arab Emirates – now with the corona virus pandemic – Dr Frauke Heard-Bey

Dr Frauk Heard-Bey, the RSAA’s local Honorary Secretary in Abu Dhabi, offers this picture of the impact of COVID-19 in the United Arab Emirates

Abu Dhabi, 22 May 2020

The jury is still out on how effectively different countries dealt with the corona virus pandemic. Each and every authority is now looking back to the early days of when news of the spread of the virus appeared on their media radar. In hindsight governments and health authorities realise that whenever they reacted – it should always have been even earlier!

Individuals depend entirely on how the authorities in their respective places of residence tackle this novel situation. My husband David and I are very grateful that during this time we are, where we are – in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates. Four months after the first case, when a Chinese family of four visiting Dubai from Wuhan sought medical help on 23 January, one can look back on an example of mostly very successful crisis management. The UAE with some 9 million inhabitants is not out of the woods yet by a long way, with over 26,000 cases and 233 deaths to date. But a review of the various authorities’ reactions to the situation, which the WHO declared a pandemic on 11 March, shows that decisive measures were quickly taken to keep on top of the spread of the virus through the multi-ethnic population.

The UAE is a federation of seven economically different emirates, in which much of the local authority still centres on the tribally-defined ruling families, while the overall authority is underpinned with federal funds provided by oil-producing Abu Dhabi. Daily coverage in the media backed up trust within the general public, that the chief decision-takers, namely the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and the Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, coordinated between them the general line of the reaction to the development of the virus in the community. Timely measures were put in place such as closing schools on 7 March and universities soon after. From mid-March arrivals at airports were tested for temperature; sanitiser gels were in evidence at the entrances of clinics, public administration counters, malls and shops; masks were used by many people; public events such as a Music Festival and other concerts, the Book Fair and a Cultural Summit in Abu Dhabi, and Dubai Art were cancelled in quick succession. Soon people realised that it was also just a matter of days before malls, parks and other public places would no longer be accessible. To close all mosques was a bold decision. On 22 April it was also decided to postpone for a year to October 2021 the World Exhibition Expo 2020, on which Dubai was pinning so much of its economic future.

Testing many groups of front-line workers and people with symptoms was given absolute priority early on – using ever faster testing kits brought from abroad and later developed locally. By 22 April this was ramped up to 25,795 in one day, performed in many drive-through centres and hospitals – which meant more than one million mostly free tests for one in ten of the inhabitants. By May, testing was declared free for every national citizen (about 15% of the population) and all inhabitants over 50 years of age, along with repeated testing for the high risk groups. Optional testing is available for about £ 75.

The geographical and economic conditions being different in the big population centres of Abu Dhabi and Dubai, the pandemic soon took a different course in each of these and the smaller emirates. A dangerous cluster was discovered in a densely populated district of old Dubai. The area was completely sealed off, the inhabitants were tested. Infected persons were sent into isolation in a hotel room, to a hospital or one of newly built field clinics. A complete 24-hour curfew declared for Dubai on 4 April was probably due to other clusters in remoter areas, in particular in the numerous labour camps around the huge building sites for Expo 2020. During this two-week-long lockdown, which exempted essential workers, people had to apply by mobile phone for permission to visit the doctor, a supermarket or walk the dog. Police are equipped with temperature sensors – some having them integrated into their helmets. Meanwhile restrictions are progressively relaxing to allow the all-important hospitality business and commerce to resume with strict obligations.

Abu Dhabi proceeded with different, less stringent measures to push the alarming increase in new infections down. There is a less drastic curfew: A very loud signal on every mobile phone delivers a message in Arabic and English to alert the public that all roads are off limits from 8p.m. to 6 a.m. while all public places are being sanitized. This was eased by two hours for Ramadan. Labourers working in Abu Dhabi live mostly in construction camps close to an industrial and business area, which had been moved off the island of Abu Dhabi in the 1970s. In early May, thousands of blue collar workers were screened in a dedicated testing facility in that vicinity. People who tested positive there will be accommodated in a field hospital, where patients have their individual TV screens and earphones in curtained cubicles. During Ramadan there are countless initiatives to get meals to the thousands of fasting migrant Muslims. But thousands of Indians and Pakistanis have registered with their respective embassies to board one of the repatriation flights, which have been organised from all airports in the UAE and elsewhere in the Gulf – reminiscent of the evacuation efforts in autumn 1990 during the Kuwait crisis.

While reacting to the challenging health situation in the country, the authorities in the UAE did not take their eyes off the importance of keeping the local business community on board in view of the ever more drastic lockdown measures imposed. On 15 March the Targeted Economic Support Scheme TEES worth $ 27.2 billion was launched by the UAE Central Bank to help banks to support retail and business customers during the coming one year. On 13 April the UAE Central Bank met with all banks to urge them to support the private sector with un-bureaucratic loans, and on 16 May a further stimulus packet of about £ 66 billion was announced from federal and local government sources. It remains unclear whether all this help would benefit primarily those companies, with majority national ownership – which is the case by law for most business arrangements. The extent to which businesses, big and small, manage to stay afloat has of course repercussions on the continued residence of millions of expatriate employees in the country.

The UAE has had an impressive track record as an international donor over many years. Abu Dhabi’s previous Ruler and the federation’s first President, Shaikh Zayed, had himself institutionalised sharing his country’s sudden wealth with less fortunate others. Nowadays, the leadership knows well, how to use aid as a trump card for soft diplomacy and to enhance the UAE’s international prestige. Giving aid is not confined to finance, it also takes the form of sending field hospitals, clearing mines, spearheading vaccination against polio or saving endangered species. Dubai’s humanitarian village is one of several places in the world, where aid agencies pre-position material for a sudden emergency. Often the two national airlines offer to fly such material to where it is urgently needed. In this global pandemic the UAE has sent medical and emergency equipment to nearly 50 countries – including 60 tons of personal protective and medical equipment flown to the United Kingdom on 1 May.

The numbers of infected persons climbed alarmingly in recent weeks to 873 additional cases overnight on 20 May. This is probably due to three factors, firstly dramatic ramping up of testing – 1,6 million to date, but also the fact that once the virus had taken hold in any of the many labour camps up and down the country, it proved a growing challenge to reign in the spread. Lastly, obliging the overwhelmingly Muslim population to desist from socialising in the traditional way during Ramadan did not bring the expected results. That is why, together with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States, the UAE is mandating – while detailing hefty fines – a near total nightly curfew and the prohibition of family gatherings for several days over the ‘Id festival which follows the end of Ramadan fasting.

My husband David and I will miss very much congratulating our friends on the ‘Id, as we have also forgone our nightly visits to share the traditions of Ramadan with so many local families. But we trust that by following the rules we will remain in good hands here.


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


Pakistan’s corona crisis puts Britain’s in perspective


index1Rupert Stone comments on the impact of Covid-19 in Pakistan

While much of Europe and the US remains in varying degrees of lockdown as fatalities from the novel coronavirus continue to rise, Pakistan could be on the verge of a far more devastating crisis.

With its huge population of around 220 million (the world’s fifth largest), massive slums,crowded mosques, broken public healthcare system and chronically dysfunctional government, Pakistan is a favourable environment for COVID-19.

But the statistics seem to tell a positive story. Over 14,000 cases have been recorded and more than 300 deaths: a relatively small number. However, Pakistan has only tested a tiny fraction of its population, so the real case-load is likely much higher. The World Health Organization recently warned that cases could increase to 200,000 by July. An internal government assessment suggests an eventual tally of 20 million infections.

So far, Pakistan has struggled to respond effectively to the virus, which has been like a magnifying glass held up to Pakistani politics and society, illuminating the country’s major weaknesses, while also highlighting some of its strengths.

The public healthcare system is woefully ill-equipped to handle this emergency. Spending on healthcare amounts to 2.9% of GDP, lower than India and less than half of the global average. According to a recent BBC report, there are less than 10 ventilators per 1 million people. In Karachi, a gigantic metropolis of 20 million, there were reportedly only 600 intensive care beds as of late March.

Moreover, there is a shortage of personal protective equipment for doctors. A group of irate medics in Balochistan province, long a hotbed of anti-government activism, demonstrated against the lack of resources, only to be arrested. It is grimly appropriate that the country’s first fatality from COVID was a doctor.  Since then, more than 150 medics have contracted the virus, and several have died.

Coronavirus seems to afflict the old disproportionately. And Pakistan’s population is quite young, with 64% under the age of 30, suggesting fewer people might die. But the prevalence of chronic medical conditions, including HIV/AIDS, diabetes, typhoid, and tuberculosis makes young people more vulnerable. Even before the advent of corona, Pakistan was plagued by infectious disease. It is one of only three countries where polio is still a problem.

Added to that, high levels of pollution have led to widespread respiratory disease, the last thing Pakistanis need if they are battling COVID-19, which can cause pneumonia. In 2019, four Pakistani cities ranked among the twenty most polluted in the world. Lahore is regularly engulfed with heavy smog caused by traffic fumes and fires. There is also indoor pollution resulting from the use of biomass fuel in cooking.

The response of the prime minister, Imran Khan, to this crisis has been slow and indecisive.  At first, he refused to impose a lockdown, claiming that Pakistan’s people were too poor to cope with the economic losses. He had a point: almost 40% of the population lives below the poverty line, with many depending on daily wages, and Pakistan’s fragile economy was only just starting to emerge from a major balance of payments crisis in 2018-19.

Furthermore, locking down such a big country is no easy task. Karachi and Lahore are both megacities with vast, overcrowded slums. Social distancing is almost impossible in such places, where large families live huddled together, where facilities are often shared and streets are narrow. Worse still, conditions are filthy and there is a lack of clean water for hand-washing.

Despite all this, the provincial governments, empowered by a 2010 amendment to Pakistan’s constitution, ignored the prime minister and ordered their own lockdowns. They were supported by the military, which swatted Khan aside and took control of the crisis, deploying troops across the country. But images of traffic jams and large crowds in Lahore and Karachi have suggested widespread violations of the lockdown measures.

The military’s defiance of the civilian government should raise alarm bells. Pakistan’s mighty army has launched four coups since independence in 1947 and ruled the country for half of its history. Civil-military relations were initially harmonious after Khan took office in 2018, possibly because the generals supported his candidacy. But, with the economy stagnating under Khan’s stewardship, the military has started to lose patience.

Coronavirus could be another nail in his coffin.  The low point came in March, when pilgrims returning from Iran – one of the corona hotspots – were quarantined in makeshift tents. People were bunched together in squalid conditions, facilitating the spread of the infection and defeating the whole point of the exercise. When those quarantined were eventually released, hundreds tested positive for the virus.

But Pakistan is not the only country to respond sluggishly. The same could be said of Britain and the US. India, with its vast slums and population of 1.3 billion, has also struggled. And Khan has done some things right, providing cash handouts to Pakistan’s poor and needy through his ‘Ehsaas’ program, for example, despite the country’s bleak and worsening economic outlook.

Religious gatherings pose a particularly hard challenge for the government. It is normal for Pakistanis to flock to Friday prayers in large numbers. While Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and other Muslim-majority countries decided to shutter mosques due to the pandemic, Pakistan allowed them to remain open under certain limitations. But clerics and worshippers violated those rules.

The health risks of allowing large religious gatherings became apparent in March, when 150,000 members of a pan-Islamic group, Tablighi Jamaat, assembled outside Lahore for an annual meeting. The government eventually persuaded them to leave, but not before the virus had infected large numbers of people, including some from abroad who later returned home.

Now, with Ramadan upon us, the government has capitulated to clerical pressure and agreed to loosen restrictions on mosque attendance, a reminder – if any were needed – of the ulema’s extraordinary influence in Pakistani politics. A group of concerned doctors wrote to the government protesting its decision to open up mosques during Ramadan, but to no avail. In Pakistan, clerics come before medics.

To be fair, this is a difficult situation. If mosques were closed, there would likely be strong resistance. After all, they receive most of their donations during Ramadan. Big protests could erupt, as they have before, leading to standoffs with the authorities. The prospect of widespread social unrest and further economic dislocation, on top of the public health emergency, has made the government understandably reluctant to flex its muscles.

The coming months will be difficult for Pakistan. But it has endured numerous disasters before, whether they be floods, earthquakes, or wars. While the country’s institutions might be ineffectual, its people are generous and will support each another. As Anatol Lieven writes in his book Pakistan: A Hard Country, “The state, whoever claims to lead it, is weak, and society in its various forms is immensely strong.”


A Letter from Hong Kong – 20 April

Martin Purbrick (@mtpurbrick), the RSAA’s honorary local secretary in Hong Kong, continues his commentary on life with Covid-19.  Martin is a regular contributor to Asian Affairs



20 April 2020

The Coronavirus in Hong Kong has led to a new normal lifestyle for us all. Bars, pubs, karaoke lounges, massage establishments, bathhouses, mahjong parlours, and nightclubs (which are not discos, but have Chinese hostesses entertaining male customers) are all closed. Never has vice been so hard hit. Horse racing is however continuing and hence at least people can gamble, which Deng Xiaoping assured when he famously said before 1997 that “Horses will keep racing and nightclub dancing will continue”. (Well, he was right about horses.)

Restaurants are open, but with only 50 per cent of normal seating allowed, tables must be 1.5 metres apart or with a partition, and no more than 4 people may sit together. Face masks must be worn inside restaurants, except when consuming food or drink (thank heavens). There is temperature checking at entrances to restaurants and shops. Face masks are pervasive on people walking on the streets. But business continues and there is no compulsory lockdown.

Thankfully, the situation is far less severe than in many other cities and countries.  By 19 April, there were a total of 1,024 confirmed cases and only 4 deaths. Hong Kong people are doing well at dealing with the crisis.

The Hong Kong Government’s Coronavirus catchphrase is “Together we fight the virus”. This collaborative approach does however continue to be distracted by the political tensions. The Liaison Office of the Central Peoples’ Government stated last week that they can comment on and supervise any issues concerning the relationship between Hong Kong and Beijing. This may contradict Article 22 of the Basic Law, the Hong Kong mini-constitution, that requires that PRC government departments do not interfere in Hong Kong affairs. This followed comments made by the Head of the Liaison Office about legislators who he suggested may have breached their oaths of office by filibustering new legislation.

On 14 April, Reuters reported that senior judges in the city had told reporters that “The independence of Hong Kong’s judicial system is under assault from the Communist Party leadership in Beijing.” The article relayed concerns from interviews with judges that there is a concerted effort by the Central Peoples’ Government to restrict the Hong Kong Judiciary by using the PRC state-controlled media to issue warnings, to limit the scope of the Judiciary to rule on any constitutional matters, and to assert the rule of law as a tool to preserve the rule of the Chinese Communist Party.

The next day happened to be “National Security Education Day”, seemingly a new festival in Hong Kong that has not been in the traditional Chinese calendar in the past. Both Hong Kong and Central Government officials made statements about the auspicious day. Carrie Lam, Chief Executive, said that “National security is an important cornerstone for peace and stability and “social events” in the past year have given the society a deeper understanding of the importance of national security.”

Luo Huining, Director of the Liaison Office of the Central Peoples’ Government in Hong Kong, said on 15 April that “If the anthill eroding the rule of law is not cleared, the dam of national security will be destroyed and the well-being of all Hong Kong residents will be damaged”, and that “There is a need to put effort into maintaining the national security legal system and enforcement system as soon as possible.” Luo was referring to the calls by the Central Peoples’ Government for Hong Kong to enact new national security legislation.

Celebrations of National Security Education Day in the PRC included suggestions by the Ministry of State Security as to why this is such an important subject. The MSS are usually quite a serious bunch but in cartoon videos released on their website they referred to Superman, Mr. Bean, The Joker, and Spongebob Squarepants to illustrate why the Counter Espionage and National Security Law are really very important. (1)

The videos encourage citizens to identify foreign spies in their everyday lives and explains that many people think of the FBI, CIA, Superman, Batman, Iron Man, Spiderman, and Captain America as spies, but the superheroes have in fact been laid off and are unemployed. It seems that even the serious spies at the Ministry of State Security has been watching a few too many Hollywood movies during their prolonged time locked down because of the coronavirus.

There is a long tradition in China of warning the population to beware of “foreign forces”. On the 2018 National Security Awareness Day, Chinese citizens were warned to be alert for friends who wear masks, spies who come as tourists, journalists, researchers, or diplomats.(2)  In the 2017 campaign, the authorities offered cash rewards for providing intelligence about foreign agents. The first campaign, in 2016, warned female citizens of the “Dangerous Love” from dating foreigners. The risks were illustrated in a cartoon showing a poor civil servant named “Little Li” who engaged in a romance with a visiting foreign scholar called David. Miss Li’s job is to write reports for senior Communist Party leaders, which the devious David asks her to share with him after he plies her with walks in the park, flowers and dinner dates. This does of course end in tears as David stops calling Miss Li once he has some reports, and the police arrive to arrest the poor girl whilst telling her how naïve she is.

It seems that old people can also be a danger to National Security.  On Saturday 18 April, the Hong Kong Police arrested Barrister Martin Lee (age 81), Barrister Margaret Ng (72), former legislator Yeung Sum (72), newspaper owner Jimmy Lai (71), former legislator Albert Ho (68), former legislator Cyd Ho (65), politician Leung Kwok Hung (64), trade unionist Lee Cheuk Yan (63), and a few other local politicians.  All were arrested on suspicion of taking part in an Unlawful Assembly in August 2019. None had committed any violence and did not encourage violence, but they were at a protest involving a few hundred thousand people that has been declared an Unlawful Assembly by the Police.

It is always helpful to look back at history in China to understand the current political situation. Confucius is helpful when considering governing, and in the Analects, written around 500 BCE, “The Duke Ai asked, saying, “What should be done in order to secure the submission of the people?” Confucius replied, “Advance the upright and set aside the crooked, then the people will submit. Advance the crooked and set aside the upright, then the people will not submit.”  Rather often in the history of China the teachings of Confucius are more honoured in the breach than in the observance.

Laws in China were codified during the reign of Qin Shi Huangdi, the first great emperor from 221 BCE, but according to the “Legalist” philosophy. Legalism contended that people were more likely to do wrong rather than right because they are self-interested and hence the threat of severe punishment is the best way to maintain order. Legalism was prominent during the reign of Qin Shi Huangdi and other philosophies were banned, books detailing them destroyed, and non-conforming writers executed. Punishments were severe, ranging from beatings, hard labour (for instance on the Great Wall and Grand Canal), banishment to frontier regions (terribly hot), flogging, amputation (of hands, feet, nose), and castration.

The Qin Dynasty ended in 206 BCE and was succeeded by the Han Dynasty that continued until 220 CE. During the Han Dynasty “Legalism” was replaced by Confucianism as the leading philosophy and the country thrived with the development of the Silk Road, the establishment of the Imperial Examinations, the expansion of art in calligraphy, painting, pottery, and sculpture, which established China as such a great civilisation that thrives when its people are allowed to express themselves.

1. Quartz, China is using Mr Bean and Batman to help explain the importance of protecting state secrets, 15 April 2020 (

 2. The Guardian, China’s anti-spy campaign: cash rewards and warnings of dangerous times, 10 May 2018 (


Martin Purbrick



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