Why coronavirus hasn’t stopped Hong Kong’s protest movement

Promise Li

Posted April 18, 2020

For months, protesters, tear gas and riot police have been a regular sight on the streets of Hong Kong. Demonstrations have, at times, numbered over a million. Now, with government officials considering imposing stricter lockdown measures in response to the coronavirus outbreak, Hong Kong’s protest movement faces a new challenge.

Governments are seizing the opportunity to grab power amid the crisis. Hong Kong offers a model for resistance.

Medical workers on strike in Hong Kong, February 2020. | PA Images

It has been over a year ago since the protests began, initially in opposition to a law that would have allowed extradition to China. Since then, protesters have widened their demands to include universal suffrage, self-determination and an end to police violence. The pandemic, which reached the city in January, has forced the movement to rethink not only its tactics – which have involved vast public gatherings – but also its priorities.

Hongkongers are better prepared than most for COVID-19. In 2003, the city was a hotspot for a related strain of coronavirus – SARS-CoV. There were over 5,000 cases and 336 deaths from the disease alone in Hong Kong – only China, where the virus originated, suffered worse.

This time, however, Hong Kong’s infection rate has remained among the lowest globally – although fears remain that the outbreak could worsen. While past experience in dealing with an epidemic has played a role, months of community organising could also explain Hongkongers’s readiness in the face of the crisis. With citizens across the world now turning to mutual aid as a way of helping one another during the pandemic, could Hong Kong be a model to emulate?

Medics on strike 

The outbreak comes at a time when Hongkongers’ faith in the political system is at rock bottom. The curtailment of civil liberties and police violence against protesters has led many to completely lose trust in the government. The state’s response to the pandemic has done little to help restore it. After the Carrie Lam administration announced an emergency subsidy for the construction sector, thousands of workers in the industry soon discovered that they are ineligible simply for failing to clock in for work properly in the past

Disillusioned with their politicians, Hongkongers have come to rely on each other. Late last year, the protest movement encouraged workers to form unions in dozens of sectors. Amid the pandemic, the unions have repurposed themselves to pressure the government. When the first death due to COVID-19 was reported in February, medical workers went on strike for the first time in the city’s history to demand better protective equipment and a closure of Hong Kong’s borders to stop the spread of infection. 

After supplies of face masks in Hong Kong became scarce, the movement’s diaspora networks helped to arrange supplies from overseas. Activists also set up shop in the working-class districts of Tuen Mun and Tai Kok Tsui to provide face masks and sanitisers for cleaning workers, whose lack of protective supplies have left them at high risk for tear gas and now also COVID-19 exposure. 

In more recent months, as conditions worsen in the US, Hong Kongers and Chinese at home and in the diaspora have also worked with activists abroad to provide masks and other resources for medical workers and other at-risk communities from Seattle to New York.

Altruism and opportunism

Hong Kong also teaches us that, especially for communities in need, the instinctual desire for self-sufficiency in the face of government failure can also make people turn inward. Last month, knife-wielding robbers attempted to steal hundreds of toilet paper rolls from a delivery man outside a supermarket in Mong Kok. Some Hong Kong restaurants have also sparked controversy for refusing to serve Mandarin-speaking customers. Both pro-establishment and even some pro-democracy figures have denounced this discriminatory and exclusionary practice. 

While activists should be embedded in this profusion of mutual aid initiatives, we must also not adopt depoliticised models that distract from making mass demands on the state, and even reinforce dependence on private-sector charity. 

The pandemic is not an interruption of movement-building, but its continuation with even higher stakes. 

The myriad kinds of community responses toward the outbreak should caution us from thinking that cooperation and mutual aid are inevitable outcomes in this crisis. Nor do these efforts necessarily build mass movement power against state and capital. At the same time, there is no guaranteed Hobbesian state of nature, wherein self-interested competition is the only law with no room for solidarity. The left must recognise that people are necessarily motivated by their material conditions, and it is up to us to actively support and amplify movement-driven alternatives to address their needs. 

The Hong Kong protest movement’s speedy adaptation to address a public health crisis reminds us that this pandemic is not an interruption of movement-building, but its continuation with even higher stakes. Boris Johnson’s completely ineffectual response to the outbreak in the UK cannot be separated from the Conservative Party’s persistent measures to defund and understaff the NHS. In the US, tenant groups have pointed out that the eviction moratoriums in US cities can barely count as even a stop-gap measure given the nation’s pre-existing housing and homelessness crisis fuelled by unbridled rent increases and retaliation evictions.

Resisting authoritarianism

Governments around the world continue to offer a false dichotomy in response to the crisis. Either abide by draconian measures that exacerbate an ever-tightening state security culture or have resources and aid for communities in need withdrawn.

Mass movement solidarity – as it manifests in tactics from local mutual aid networks to unions – is the best deterrent against further attacks on democracy. Activists must remain vigilant against attempts to curtail civil liberties. The Carrie Lam administration has already tried to use this moment to swiftly arrest several key pro-democracy political figures for participating in a banned rally in August of last year. Hungary’s right-wing PM Viktor Orban was recently granted the right to bypass democratic institutions and rule by decree by the country’s parliament, further normalising authoritarian measures in a global state of emergency. 

The Hong Kong protest movement’s accumulated skepticism toward state power and bureaucracy signals positive avenues for the left. Instead of simply trusting ‘progressive’ administrations and reforms, Hong Kong shows us that we cannot place all our hopes for a better world in existing state apparatuses. Power for change comes from people’s self-organised capacity to take collective ownership over the distribution of public resources. Increasingly, a political necessity rather than idealism as our world moves closer to more large-scale catastrophes induced by neoliberalism. 

Frederich Engels once argued that unions are “schools of war” for workers. Hongkongers’ recent approach to empowering usually apolitical workers to make collective demands on the state through newly formed unions is the best kind of political education for a mass movement, more so than any prescribed ideological platform. While the pandemic is rapidly exposing the toll of years of austerity measures on working-class and marginalised peoples, it also demonstrates the resilience of movements and people’s self-capacity to resist.

This was originally published in OpenDemocracy on April 11th.