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Beijing exploits Covid-19 to tighten grip on Hong Kong

China is using the contagion as a pretext to push for greater control of the fractious territory

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Beijing exploits Covid-19 to tighten grip on Hong Kong

Police detain pro-democracy protesters calling for the city's independence in Hong Kong on May 10. (Photo: AFP)

It is now clear that China’s ruling Communist Party sees the Covid-19 pandemic that first surfaced in provincial city Wuhan as a major threat — as evidenced by ultra-tough lockdown rules — but also an opportunity.

Beijing and its puppet administration in Hong Kong, led by increasingly craven chief executive Carrie Lam, are exploiting the pandemic every way to push for greater control of the special administrative region.

On May 8, there were extraordinary scenes on the floor of the city’s Legislative Council (LegCo) as pro-Beijing lawmaker Starry Lee Wai-king, the house committee chairperson for 2018-19, occupied the chairman’s seat by force after lawmakers failed to elect a replacement, helped by dozens of security guards.

The brazen move appears to indicate that the pro-Beijing forces that comprise the majority of the government (a mix of appointed and elected officials) have been emboldened by broader moves by the Communist Party to assert more control over Hong Kong. Pan-democrats have said the meeting was illegal and that they would continue to contest Lee’s takeover.

It is now close to 11 months since Carrie Lam hamfistedly tried to introduce legislation that would allow Beijing to extradite people from Hong Kong, not just Chinese nationals but citizens of any country who fell foul of Beijing’s censorious and oppressive regime.

This triggered million-strong street marches, illustrating how widespread opposition to the plan was, followed by five furious months of protests that saw students barricade themselves in universities for weeks. There was something of a pause in November, when pro-democratic forces (including more independence-leaning players) triumphed in local council elections.

During the ensuing extended lull as protesters absorbed what was a clear success of the movement, the Covid-19 crisis broke, with Hong Kong in the front line of countries and territories that began to see infections outside mainland China.

Last weekend protests resumed in earnest after the Hong Kong government relaxed social distancing rules, allowing public gatherings of eight people, up from four. Using guerrilla tactics, protesters shifted from shopping mall to mall, attempting to stay a step ahead of police who used pepper spray on the protesters when they could.

There is some irony in that the government last year attempted to enforce laws preventing protesters from wearing masks so that they could be identified — despite police officers wearing their own masks. Now almost everyone in the city is wearing a mask as a precaution against Covid-19.

On May 12, a pro-Beijing LegoCo member introduced a bill designed to halt derision of the Chinese national anthem. Its provisions include fines of up to HK$50,000 (US$6,450) and up to three years in prison for those who use the anthem for commercial purposes, or publicly and intentionally insult the anthem, such as booing it during soccer games, which has happened in the recent past.

This is further evidence of the dark, authoritarian hand of Beijing extending into the affairs of Hong Kong.

The context, apart from the almost year-long protests, is the upcoming LegCo elections scheduled for Sept. 6 when protesters and pro-democracy forces will be hoping to consolidate gains made in last year’s council elections. While the large slice of the LegCo that is appointed through an opaque system linked with the business community prevents the pro-Dems from attaining control of the council, higher representation certainly makes things more difficult for Beijing.

So the plan of the pro-Beijing majority appears to be to try to ram laws through the LegCo ahead of the September elections.

Yet this does not seem to be enough for the now deeply unpopular Lam, who followed up on the weekend’s fresh bout of violence with a view to “reform” the city’s education system. Beijing has long seen the introduction of more stringent, conformist education replete with propaganda techniques imported from the mainland as key to gaining more control in Hong Kong.

Lam is now mouthing exactly what her masters wish, describing Hong Kong’s secondary school program as a “chicken coop without a roof” and that students need protection from being “poisoned” and fed “false and biased information.”

“In terms of handling the subject of liberal studies in the future, we will definitely make things clear to the public within this year,” she told the pro-government Ta Kung Pao newspaper on May 11.

It’s now clear, then, that Beijing has no intention of easing off on Hong Kong; rather it seems to be ramping up its bid for more control of the city under the cover of the coronavirus. Fasten your seat belts, folks, this rollercoaster ride is not slowing down.

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