By Delany Higgins
With the coronavirus outbreak dominating headlines, news of China has shifted swiftly away from the Hong Kong protests for democracy. The Chinese government’s response to the outbreak, lauded by the World Health Organisation, has demonstrated their impressive capacity to mobilise resources, and to immobilise people. The brunt of the operation has focused on the epicentre of the outbreak: the city of Wuhan, in Hubei province, though it has also extended to other areas in mainland China. If similar measures to those taken in Hubei were taken in Hong Kong, however, it could quickly spell a death-sentence for the pro-democracy movement.
The government’s answer to the Wuhan outbreak is modelled on the reaction to the 2003 SARS outbreak. This means constructing a new, specialised hospital, and expanding clinics for those with fevers. Long-distance bus service has been terminated for the eastern province of Shandong, as have those serving Beijing or Shanghai. But the government’s toolkit has expanded greatly since 2003. Beijing’s initial directives to the provinces on responding to the virus also included instructions to strengthen surveillance of citizens, and President Xi personally emphasised the importance of guiding public thought online. The provinces have deployed drones in the streets to remind individuals who meander forth without a mask to follow government instructions to return home and not gather in large groups. For many living under the CCP, this level of surveillance is little more than the ordinary. A recent Human Rights Watch World Report detailed the known extent of the Chinese surveillance state.
The report condemns the ‘Strike Hard’ Campaign, China’s crackdown on its Turkic Muslim (mainly Uyghur) population. The Campaign has focused on the northwestern region of Xinjiang, where access to the territory has been severely restricted. The authorities have controlled the trips of journalists, diplomats, and human rights experts. Generic tourists are required to download an app to monitor their behaviour. Residents are subject to their own surveillance through the ‘Integrated Joint Operations Platform’, which records most aspects of daily life.
The Campaign has involved the arrest, detention, and ‘re-education’ of untold numbers of individuals deemed to be threats, and there is little evidence that those held in ‘re-education’ camps are ever returned to society. Those who survive re-education are assigned to labour in factories that they cannot leave. The Report estimates that thirteen million Uyghur and other Turkic Muslims are currently under this level of surveillance, one million of whom are in the re-education camps.
Further, Human Rights Watch highlights the strengthening of surveillance control over Tibetans in an attempt to root out dissent, loyalty to the exiled Dalai Lama, or other cultural divergences, and enforcing homogeneous ‘Sinicization’ policies. It also details crackdowns on the Hong Kong protests against a bill enabling extradition to China, as well as onlater protests demanding universal suffrage.
With over 18 confirmed cases of coronavirus thus far, Hong Kong has mandated the quarantine of all mainland arrivals. Were the outbreak to spread further in Hong Kong – a real possibility given the speed with which it has already advanced – similar measures of surveillance and population control might be implemented in the semi-autonomous, politically precarious territory. Regardless of intent, be it public safety or political control, the form of crackdown on the spread of any undesirable news or nonalignment with the party that characterised the mainland government’s initial response to the outbreak in Wuhan (which exacerbated the initial problem) would quickly quash protests in Hong Kong.
Ironically, then, the vitality of Hong Kong’s democracy movement, not just that of its most vulnerable citizens, may depend on the strength of Beijing’s capacity to contain the outbreak on the mainland.
Cover Image Source: CNN