HONG KONG—July has been a month of constant struggle for this city in recent years, but especially since the protests last summer, which raised the stakes in the quest for universal suffrage. This year is even more chaotic: A third wave of COVID-19 infections has revived worries that Hong Kong, one of the densest cities in the world, may soon see an overwhelmed hospital system. Meanwhile, some of the pro-democracy movement’s organizers, still in their teens, have been targeted by the newly formed secret police, taken away in the night.
And now, in truly Trumpian fashion, September’s election for legislators’ seats has been called off, wiping away what was expected to be a landslide win for the opposition—and keeping some of Beijing’s puppets in their seats for at least another year.
On Friday local time, Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam said she had made the decision to delay the September vote, citing the COVID-19 pandemic as a risk for the three million or more people who may come out to cast their ballots. Lam also mentioned that candidates have been unable to organize campaign events due to social distancing rules, and that international travel restrictions prevent eligible voters who are overseas from returning to the city.
But few in the city are buying into her talking points. Just one day before Lam’s announcement, which she said is backed by higher authorities in the Chinese Communist Party, 12 pro-democracy candidates were disqualified from running. These include 23-year-old Joshua Wong—one of the activists who gave a face to the Umbrella Movement of 2014 and is the subject of a Netflix documentary—as well as four current legislators.
The COVID-19 pandemic has given cover to Hong Kong’s government to limit opposition action. Public gatherings of more than two people have been banned. Now, an anti-mask law, which was meant to counter protesters’ concealment of their identities, coexists alongside a mandate to wear face masks for public health and safety reasons, giving the police force an extra opening to harass and arrest anyone in the city.
Beijing’s national security law that applies to Hong Kong came into effect on July 1. It indicates that any individual involved in sedition, subversion, treason, or collusion with foreign forces may face up to 10 years in prison. The vaguely defined law has sparked alarm in the city, and the Hong Kong Bar Association said it is designed to “erode the high degree of autonomy” that the city’s population once had access to.
News that the September election may be called off has been circulating in Hong Kong for days. People in the city are not surprised by Lam’s move, because the democratic camp’s primaries held three weeks ago, with more than 600,000 people participating in a straw poll, pointed to crushing defeat for establishment figures, repeating a landslide win achieved by the pro-democracy opposition camp in the voting booth last November.
Sensing that the system isn’t rigged enough in favor of its proxies in Hong Kong, Beijing called the primaries a “serious provocation” that ran counter to the national security law, and claimed that “foreign forces” may have facilitated or even orchestrated the process.
There are recent examples that tell us a voting day can be organized safely during the pandemic. South Korea held its legislative election in April this year, then Singapore had its general election in July. By following a few simple rules that we are all familiar with now—maintaining distance from one another, masks on always, keeping hands and shared surfaces clean—a vote can take place.
And Hong Kongers have been highly disciplined for months, managing to flatten and squash the curve without an official lockdown. Businesses formulated work-from-home arrangements for their staff. The population stocked up on food and limited social gatherings. Public areas are cleaned regularly, often hourly.
The recent surge in infections—the city’s third wave—was brought on largely by people who had waivers for the mandatory 14-day quarantine, granted by Lam’s administration to airline crews, sailors, commercial truck drivers, executives of listed companies, and other individuals who were given special permission. In all, more than 250,000 people skipped quarantine in Hong Kong after traveling internationally between February and June.
Now, the city is adding about 100 newly confirmed cases of COVID-19 infections each day.
The Hong Kong Police Force is using this lull on the streets to catch up with visible, high-profile organizers of the anti-government or pro-democracy movement. Police officers have been visiting shopping malls and universities to gather security camera feeds, and they have arrested the administrators of some Telegram groups that disseminate various kinds of information, like street protest tactics. And the newly formed secret police unit launched its first operation this week, taking into custody four individuals aged 16 to 21 for “inciting secession.” The three men and one woman include the former leader of a pro-independence group, Studentlocalism, which disbanded on June 30, one day before the dreaded security law came into effect.
These arrests, along with the suspension of September’s election, have angered a city of people who are seeking a small say in how they are governed. Think of it as the death of democracy cut by cut, where the Chinese Communist Party and its proxies in Hong Kong slowly slice away at the structures through which the city seeks self-determination. There is never a killing blow, just a new wound every day.
And what about the massive marches and rallies of last summer that had seven-figure attendance, or the street-level, black bloc resistance that drew inspiration from Bruce Lee’s “be water” philosophy? They are unlikely to return any time soon. Fear and fury permeates the city—fear not so much of persecution, but of the uncertainty that has come to define life in Hong Kong more than the pandemic; and fury fueled by the indignation that seethes through an understanding that the CCP and its puppets do not recognize Hong Kong as a place for people who were born and bred here.
Donald Trump, who once said “it’s great” that CCP leader Xi Jinping ripped up term limits to become president for life in China, has flirted with postponing elections in the United States. That vision came true one day after he said it, on the other side of the world, where an authoritarian government is rolling back one freedom after another.