A massive spike, followed by a severe drop off: this seems to be how the highly infectious, but relatively less deadly, Omicron variant of COVID-19 has played out in many countries and regions around the world.
Over the past two years of the pandemic, Hong Kong has had fewer COVID-19 cases and deaths than most places in the world, but it has experienced a serious spike of cases over the past few weeks, with over 4,000 cases recorded on February 16 alone. As a result of the outbreak, there have been long testing lines, new restrictions that limit public gatherings to two people, and chaos in supermarkets as common vegetables remain unavailable due to disruptions in shipping them in from mainland China.
It was in this context that on February 16, Wen Wei Po and Ta Kung Pao, two papers with close links to the central government’s Liaison Office, published “important instructions” by Chinese Communist Party (CCP) General Secretary Xi Jinping regarding the COVID-19 situation in Hong Kong. According to Xi’s instructions, the Hong Kong government must “mobilize all power and resources to take all necessary measures to ensure the safety and health of the Hong Kong people and ensure the stability of the society.” The papers noted that the Hong Kong government must “firmly implement his instructions.”
That Xi Jinping gave explicit instructions to Hong Kong, as if it were simply any other part of China, is noteworthy in itself, since it is just one further step away from the “high degree of autonomy” that Hong Kong was promised in the Sino-British Joint Declaration and the Basic Law.
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But in the run up to this move, what is arguably more important was how public intellectual attack dogs affiliated with Beijing framed Hong Kong’s failure with respect to Omicron. Pronouncements by these officials signal a number of worrying trends: that the Chinese government is becoming ideological in its approach to COVID-19, an increased pressure on the Hong Kong government to fully obey Beijing, the slow de-internationalization of Hong Kong as “Asia’s World City,” and potentially even a Xinjiang-style campaign against Hong Kong elites who are perceived to have dual loyalties.
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Finding the Scapegoat
Who or what is to blame for the chaotic Omicron situation in Hong Kong?
For powerful figures in Beijing it is not the infectious nature of the variant, but rather the corrupt Western sympathies of the Hong Kong elite.
On February 7, the People’s Daily, the official newspaper of the CCP, published an article saying that “zero COVID” was a the scientific choice for Hong Kong in combating the virus. The article said that “zero COVID” was the “general policy” of the country, and at this crucial time, some people were “irresponsibly” criticizing the zero COVID strategy and suggesting a “living with the virus” attitude.
The article suggested that approach was a form of “lying flat” (躺平), a Chinese internet slang term implying doing only the bare minimum at work as a coping mechanism to deal with social pressure and China’s intense work culture. The article also noted other reasons why a non-zero COVID strategy would be risky: namely, Hong Kong’s extreme population density, the high percentage who are elderly, and the low levels of vaccination among this vulnerable demographic.
Cranking the Attack up to 11: Accusations of Divided Loyalties
On February 9, Tian Feilong, director of the Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macao Studies, wrote an op-ed reiterating many of the points made by the People’s Daily, but he raised the vitriol and innuendo to a proverbial 11. Tian, who in a profile by the New York Times was noted as an adviser and champion of the central government’s hardening of policy toward Hong Kong, blamed the failure to carry out a zero COVID policy squarely on Chief Executive Carrie Lam and Hong Kong’s civil servants, whom he derisively referred to as Hong Kong’s “AO Party” (“AO黨們,” meaning Administrative Officers Party). Tian wrote:
Because the chief executive won’t say “zero COVID” and is “the creator of a bad precedent,” the result is other civil servants even more won’t be able to do it. Hong Kong government officials are still just “doing a bit of work” on the old Hong Kong British civil servant mentality, and treating “zero COVID” with a perfunctory attitude, saying “yes” and meaning “no”, passively implementing [“zero COVID”], with the result of only relying on luck [for success], and if not successful, just forgetting about it, “lying flat” to wait for when they can get clearance for the “Western” method, as their fundamental values, way of life and family’s interests are all closely connected with the West.
In Tian’s view, Western governments could not carry out an effective zero COVID strategy, and instead pursued a form of “Social Darwinism” in which they allowed “a group of people to be eliminated”: the elderly, the lower classes, and vulnerable populations. In contrast, China staunchly believes in zero COVID as matter of fundamental values in securing the health of its whole population. In Tian’s view, Hong Kong’s “AO Party” genuinely believes the Western method is the only choice.
To prove that this vitriolic attack was not a one-off, on February 10, Cheung Chi-kong, a CPPCC member and executive director of the influential pro-Beijing think tank the One Country Two Systems Research Institute, wrote in Ming Pao that the “Hong Kong governing elites” in “their bones always believe the British and American way.” According to Cheung, these elites give the appearance of being in harmony with China’s policies, but are actually divided in their hearts.
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If Omicron behaves as it has in South Africa, Europe, and the United States, the current surge in Hong Kong will soon subside. But the way the government handles the surge, and the way Beijing elites have viewed Hong Kong’s relative failure, may have a lasting impact.
First, these broadside attacks are likely to put massive pressure on the Hong Kong government to implement something akin to a zero COVID strategy, regardless of the cost. It’s telling that just a day after Tian Feilong’s attack on the Hong Kong elite that government advisor Gabriel Leung suggested there may need to be a city-wide lockdown to prevent cases from rising to as high as 28,000 per day.
Second, while the efficacy and the scientific merits of zero COVID are disputed – and to be fair, there are some Western observers who think it is the best way forward – whatever the scientific and policy merits, it will be harder for the Chinese government to back down from a zero COVID policy now that it has been given a strong ideological dimension. Zero COVID is a proud “general policy” showing how the CCP’s system is different and better from “so-called” Western democracies. In other words, such grandiose rhetoric may box Xi in to taking a zero COVID approach long after it ceases to make sense.
Third, Hong Kong has long been self-dubbed “Asia’s World City” and acted as China’s bridge to the West, but on a very practical level over the upcoming months, the city may be forced to choose between China and the West. As Tian warned, if Hong Kong stopped implementing a zero COVID policy, in the end, Hong Kong would only be able to open its border with the West and not its border with the mainland.
Western businesspeople in Hong Kong have complained about the long quarantine times on entering the city, which has prevented them from taking trips home to see family members and conducting business trips. These problems are likely set to continue as the pressure on Hong Kong authorities to choose the mainland will be overwhelming. The prioritization of connecting Hong Kong to the mainland could inadvertently lead to the slow de-internationalization of the city, as foreign residents leave and global businesses relocate. Meanwhile, on February 14, the Hong Kong government set up five task forces with mainland authorities to deal with the outbreak, signaling closer mainland involvement and assistance in the future.
Finally, and most ominously, the attack on the Hong Kong elite signals that a Xinjiang-style rectification of local officials is not outside the realm of possibilities. As part of China’s wholesale restructuring of society in Xinjiang – with an estimated 1 million people put in extralegal detention, children sent to Mandarin-education orphanages, and Han cadres visiting the homes of Uyghurs and other predominantly Muslim minorities – the government also carried out a campaign to clean out so-called “two-faced” Uyghur cadres and intellectuals. This has targeted people who allegedly profess loyalty to the CCP, but are accused of having sympathies for Uyghur history and culture – easily conflated in CCP logic with “separatism.” Many Uyghurs cadres have been detained or fired as a result.
To some extent, however, the Xinjiang “two-faced” campaign reflects an outgrowth of China’s move away from the relative cultural pluralism that once was permitted. Instead, China is in the middle of a much more homogeneous and assimilationist push toward a singular ethnic and linguistic identity under Xi Jinping. This trend has been evident in education across Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia, and Tibetan areas, where there is now a much greater push toward a politicized education using only Mandarin. Negating even the already limited tolerance and respect previously shown for China’s various ethnicities, Xi has emphasized forging a “a collective consciousness of the Zhonghua ethnicity” as the main line of ethnic work in his “New Era.” According to this strand of thinking, implicitly, local officials with different linguistic traditions, histories, and ways of thinking from those of the northern Chinese heartland simply cannot be trusted – including Hong Kongers.
Now, mirroring that language on divided loyalties, Beijing voices have not only accused the Hong Kong elites of dual loyalties to the West – with almost no evidence – but they have also explicitly invoked the “two-faced” terminology. Tian Feilong said that in light of this “two-faced-ness… simply criticizing is not enough” and that there are problems with the Hong Kong government and society that needed to be resolved through “support” and “guidance.”
Of course, it remains to be seen whether a “two-faced” campaign on the scale of Xinjiang could ever be launched in Hong Kong. But, with many opposition politicians detained, more than 50 civil society organizations closed down, and the free press curtailed, Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing elite may find that they are next on the chopping block.