12 February 2020

Politics over public health: how the coronavirus outbreak is adding fuel to anti-government sentiment in Hong Kong

The coronavirus outbreak has triggered a growing sense of dissatisfaction among Hong Kongers, which is steadily intensifying an already-existing anti-government and anti-China narrative in the territory.

A month into the emergence in China’s Wuhan of a novel coronavirus outbreak (2019-nCoV), the number of cases and fatalities continue to rise rapidly and the infection has spread to several countries in Asia and Europe, including the Philippines, Japan, Thailand, Germany and France. The outbreak has, however, elicited a particularly complex response in China’s special administrative region of Hong Kong. Here, there is a growing sense of dissatisfaction triggered by the outbreak, which is intensifying an already-existing anti-government and anti-China sentiment.

With at least 18 confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus, including one fatality, reported across the territory as of 6 February, Hong Kongers have begun to express discontent at the perceived inefficiency of the authorities in handling the crisis. Medical workers launched an indefinite strike on 3 February demanding that the government completely close down all border crossings with mainland China. According to a poll by the Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute, 80 per cent of Hong Kongers support this demand as the medical system would be unable to handle a full-blown outbreak. Chief Executive Carrie Lam has however been reluctant to take drastic public health measures for fear of treading on politically sensitive ground, claiming that such a move would be inappropriate, impractical and discriminatory. Despite most of the links with the mainland being gradually shut down, thousands of people are still entering Hong Kong from the three most important entry points which remain open, thus increasing the risk of further spreading of the disease. People are displeased with the government for its over-compliance and appeasement policies toward Beijing despite an ongoing crisis. Distrust and uncertainty loom large over the citizens who are standing in long queues to procure essentials, particularly face masks which are in shortage. Residents have also staged protests against government plans to set up quarantine centres in their neighbourhoods.

Additionally, the economy, which was already reeling under the pressure of prolonged anti-government protests, is forecast to take a further hit. Hong Kong Financial Secretary Paul Chen remarked that the virus "will greatly increase the risk of continued economic contraction this year"; Goldman Sachs reduced its forecast for Hong Kong’s economic growth in the first quarter from 5.6 percent to 4 percent owing to the impact of the outbreak on tourism, retail, hospitality and food and beverage industries. Tourism is expected to be particularly affected as several countries, including the Philippines and Italy, have included Hong Kong in their travel restrictions against China.

These factors are compounding an existing anti-government sentiment which was triggered in mid-2019 during mass protests against a proposed extradition bill. The movement quickly turned into demands for Carrie Lam’s resignation and democratic reforms. While the 2019 protests saw a clear division between pro- and anti-government camps, the coronavirus outbreak has seen rising dissatisfaction from people across the political divide; even pro-Beijing parties (Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong as well as the Liberal Party) have issued statements calling for the immediate closure of the border, piling pressure on the government to “take decisive and strict measures”.

The situation currently unravelling in Hong Kong is in part reminiscent of the 2003 SARS outbreak where the nation was embroiled in a political crisis and a public health emergency simultaneously. Mass protests against the national security legislation coupled with the SARS outbreak and an economic decline triggered a governance crisis which eventually led the-then chief executive Tung Chee-hwa to resign. Similar upheavals cannot be ruled out in the current situation; rising public angst will certainly not bode well for the pro-Beijing camp in the upcoming Legislative Council elections in September. With the death toll rising sharply in mainland China, the outbreak is on a clear trajectory towards worsening as the Hong Kong government struggles to balance between catering to public demands and meeting China’s expectations in the backdrop of an already-existing anti-government sentiment.