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政府決策，不如自救 | Self-help replacing government decision-making
at 2:46pm on 24th February 2020
Two friends about to extinguish a fire in a rubbish bin, Shek Kip Mei, Kowloon, Hong Kong, 28 January 2020. (Photo: John Batten).
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Self-help replacing government decision-making
by John Batten
The tragedy of Leslie Cheung’s suicide is viewed by many Hongkongers as the real start of Hong Kong’s SARS outbreak in 2003. Cheung died on April Fool’s Day -1 April 2003 -and the following day Hong Kong was in full-blown SARS-defence mode. Soon after, the Amoy Gardens outbreak with its mass infections and deaths emphasized the seriousness of the situation. The current Wuhan coronavirus outbreak will have a similarly significant calendar date to mark its beginning: Lunar New Year 2020 celebrating the Year of the Rat. And, as seen so often during the recent anti-government protests, the public itself took the initiative about an important and controversial issue. Hong Kong residents spontaneously donned face masks en masse during the new year holidays, responding to a variety of media reports, particularly Wuhan city government’s announcement finally admitting the virus outbreak was more serious than had initially been reported.
On the fourth day of the new year, which already feels ages ago, I met two young friends who were each clad in a face mask, taking precautions like almost everyone else. Walking through Shek Kip Mei we saw the top of a rubbish bin on fire, some plastic material had been dropped in amongst the smoldering cigarette butts. We stopped and I snapped a photograph as one friend is about to reach inside her bag for a water bottle to put the fire out, the other friend is smiling as we joked about the strangeness of the fire being there. In the background is an old man, also laughing; it is the same man who often stands on this corner under the pedestrian overpass, selling bits and pieces. This photograph catches a coronavirus new year moment, but it also harks back to a few days earlier and the months of Hong Kong’s protests: that small fire in a rubbish bin, when so many bins have been removed from the streets for fear they will just be added to a street barricade during a protest rally, is emblematic of Hong Kong’s underlying and still unresolved social and political issues.
All the conditions remain for more fires to spontaneously ignite or be purposely lit, whether it is in a rubbish bin, on a street, or as a metaphor for an underlying political or social issue. All the city’s grievances remain, despite the ‘distraction’ of the coronavirus outbreak. Our city’s weak government remains, fluffing about, as I write, whether to fully close our borders with the mainland. Events will surely overtake the government yet again as international airlines are cancelling flights into China and governments worldwide are demanding travelers quarantine themselves for 14 days after arrival in their countries. By keeping its borders open with the mainland, Hong Kong’s porous border with China will inevitably lead to its own territory being included in the quarantine requirements of more countries. Hong Kong has an opportunity to contain the fear of spreading the coronavirus and remain open ‘for business’, at least as Asia’s most important financial centre, if it closes all mainland borders temporarily. The Philippine government has already included Hong Kong in its blanket travel ban and quarantine requirements for anyone arriving from the mainland.
The pattern seen over the summer protests months continues. Rather than gauging the public’s new year reaction to the coronavirus and immediately responding to it, the Hong Kong government instead consulted the Central authorities before initiating and announcing their own responses to the Wuhan coronavirus outbreak. Further undermining the government, the Liaison Office confirmed that the SAR government had made these consultations. As seen throughout the recent summer protests months, government, ministerial and policy decision-making is slow-moving, apprehensive and indecisive. It is an almost-irony: the government itself undermining Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy under the ‘one country, two systems’ governance arrangements. On the other hand, the professions, such as health professionals, have understood this top-level indecision-making and will increasingly act, just like the public, to initiative their own solutions for social and political problems. Health workers, for example, have taken unprecedented industrial action in Hong Kong’s hospitals to force a community health initiative, the closure of Hong Kong’s borders with the mainland, onto the government.
Over the next months, as the coronavirus outbreak slowly resolves itself, we will see more preemptive self-help, community and political initiatives by all sectors of society and business to work around top-level government inertia. Alongside these self-help initiatives will be increased criticism of the government - across the entire political spectrum, both blue and yellow, pro-democrat and pro-establishment. On 1 July 2003, just after the conclusion of the SARS outbreak, one million people marched and protested against Tung Chee-hwa’s government and its handling of SARS and proposals for Article 23 national security legislation. Ministerial resignations followed. History is circular and relevant in 2020!
This article was originally published in Ming Pao Weekly on 13 February 2020. Translated into Chinese by Aulina Chan.