Hong Kong registered zero new cases of Covid-19 on Monday, the first time since March 5. After reporting its first case of the disease on Jan. 23, almost three months of aggressive contact tracing and largely voluntary social distancing has paid off.
How has the Hong Kong government celebrated? By seeking to plunge the city into another bout of social chaos.
Over the weekend, Hong Kong authorities used the cover of the coronavirus to arrest many of the most-influential pro-democracy figures in the city. Though the police and prosecutors claim the law is blind, and enforced evenly, it is remarkable how frequently Beijing's opponents find themselves on the wrong side of it.
Very clearly, the law is being used selectively, and for political purposes. Beijing's minions in the city have chosen this pandemic as the perfect time to push their advantage. And it shows they will sink to any depth to pursue their devious means.
Police arrested at least 15 pro-democracy veterans on Saturday. Those detained include Jimmy Lai, who runs Hong Kong's best-selling tabloid, Apple Daily, as well as the founder of the Democratic Party, Martin Lee.
They were arrested for their roles in the pro-democracy protests last August and October. Lee, 81, said he was relieved to finally be charged alongside the young people, mostly students or recent graduates, already arrested.
"Over the months and years, I've felt bad to see so many outstanding youngsters being arrested and prosecuted, but I was not charged," Lee said. "Now I've finally become a defendant. I feel proud that I have a chance to walk this path of democracy together with them."
Since organizers estimate 1.7 people participated in the Aug. 18 demonstration for which he was arrested, the courts and police are going to be busy. I wonder what would happen if all 1.7 million people all go to turn themselves in.
It's ridiculous that people are being charged for "unauthorized" protests against a government that decides whether a protest is authorized or not. If you are demonstrating against a government, why are you supposed to play by the rules it sets?
Protests began in April 2019, and continued with intensity until student sieges at several universities in November. There was a pause over the Christmas, New Year and Lunar New Year holidays. Then the coronavirus struck.
Some of the protests were legally cleared; the police often did not give approval for later protests. But at the height of the demonstrations around one in every five people in this city of 7.5 million citizens took part. If the law is enforced evenly, as the police claim, rather than used to target influential pro-democracy figures, we are going to see a lot of people in the dock.
Widespread and heartfelt anti-government sentiment swept the city last year after the administration of Chief Executive Carrie Lam tried to ramrod through a bill that would have allowed the extradition of suspects into China's rigged judicial system. That would effectively have extended Chinese law to Hong Kong.
Although that bill is now dead, other issues have not been resolved. Under "One Country, Two Systems," Beijing promised to allow Hong Kong to function with a "high degree of autonomy." There is more and more Communist control of this highly capitalist city, day by day. Most glaring of all, the Lam administration remains in power, and Hong Kong still essentially only gets to elect district councilors and a handful of legislators.
So, as Hong Kong marks eight straight days of single-digit increases in Covid-19 cases, any light at the end of the tunnel will surely be extinguished as we plunge back into the darkness of social unrest.
The Hang Seng closed down 0.2% on Monday, with most Asian markets moving lower ahead of earnings season. If unrest takes off again, expect further stock losses.
Last year's protests caused Hong Kong stocks to move lower after they began in earnest in mid-April. Between May and August, the Hang Seng fell 16.0%. The détente between China and the United States on the trade war saw stocks rally 14.9%, reclaiming much of that lost ground. Then they took a 25.3% hit from the viral outbreak.
The Hong Kong economy shrank 1.2% last year, the China trade war hurting its white-collar economy serving the mainland. Mainland tourists also stopped coming to the city amid the demonstrations. Now Hong Kong is forecast to shed another 6.0% of GDP in 2020, according to Oxford Economics, before a potential rebound of 5.4% in 2021. These are not conditions for contentment.
The rating agency Fitch on Monday downgraded the Hong Kong's sovereign credit rating. Covid-19 distancing policies have compounded the negative trends of the "reputational damage that anti-government protests were inflicting on international perceptions of Hong Kong's business environment and political stability."
The protests may be on the back burner, but deep-rooted "cleavages" remain unsolved, Fitch says. "This injects lingering uncertainty into the business environment, and entrenches the risk of renewed bouts of public discontent, which could further tarnish international perceptions of the territory's governance, institutions and political stability."
It's not the social unrest that is damaging Hong Kong's image. It is the weakling government that increasingly does Beijing's bidding. The Lam administration is permanently crippled, both in reputation and in practice. It cannot get anything done. It is chipping away at the rights (including freedom of speech and assembly) that set it apart from Just Another Chinese City.
A very large percentage of people here cannot stand the government. Neither can they get rid of it. Beijing, on the other hand, hopes it has finally found a highly effective method of eliminating its enemies, while the rest of the world worries about the pandemic that was exported globally out of Wuhan.