John Brake is a PhD Candidate in Politics and International Studies at the University of Cambridge
On July 31, Hong Kong’s Beijing-backed Chief Executive, Carrie Lam, announced a one-year delay of district council elections planned for September 2020. While Lam cited public health considerations related to the coronavirus pandemic, the delay deprived pro-democracy politicians of a highly-anticipated opportunity to capitalize on public support after more than a year of mass protests. By invoking Covid-19 to justify the delay, Lam underlined how, as the pandemic has surged across the globe, the protestors’ goal of a robustly autonomous and accountable government has receded in Hong Kong.
Protestors had achieved significant momentum before the pandemic. In July 2019, millions marched against a proposed extradition bill that sparked fears of mainland meddling in Hong Kong’s judicial system; the bill was later withdrawn. Then, in November, pro-democracy candidates won a symbolic landslide victory in local elections. But in 2020, even as the pandemic has remained largely under control in Hong Kong, the protest movement has suffered setbacks. In addition to the election delay, Beijing imposed national security legislation on Hong Kong in order to empower local authorities to suppress the protests and pro-democracy dissidence in general.
This ebb and flow is not coincidental. The protests and the pandemic are connected by three underlying dynamics: The pandemic has created a political emergency in which the establishment can claim extraordinary powers. It has created conditions for the establishment to manufacture public support. And, more broadly, it has created an opportunity for non-democratic governments to act while Western democracies are distracted.
Emergency powers often challenge limited government and the rule of law. During emergencies, the normal functioning of government—limited by laws made in advance—must sometimes be suspended, and a leader endowed with special powers to mitigate the unanticipated threat to society. Disparate commentators concur that emergency declarations have often augured democratic declines—from the Roman Republic to the French Directorate to Ethiopia today. As a true global emergency, Covid-19 provides a powerful pretext for leaders to circumvent normal limits on their power and suspend citizens’ rights.
In Hong Kong, Carrie Lam claimed legal authority to delay September’s elections under the Emergency Regulations Ordinance, a colonial-era provision that empowers the Chief Executive, upon declaring an emergency, to make ‘any regulations whatsoever which he may consider desirable in the public interest’. Under other emergency legal authorities, Lam also banned gatherings of more than four people to prevent the virus’s spread. Police had used these disease-control measures to disperse otherwise legal peaceful assemblies by pro-democracy protestors.
Crises such as the pandemic have a well-known tendency to bolster public support for the political establishment, even in democracies. Non-democratic governments are generally better equipped to manufactureperformance legitimacy during crises, regardless of whether they actually respond better. They may leverage public funds for political purposes or deploy state-run media to ensure a favorable crisis response narrative. In other cases, as in Hong Kong, governments may not need to overtly manipulate public opinion. Citizens become more dependent upon government for safety and security during emergencies. Those relying on the government’s support to weather the crisis have good reason not to antagonize the establishment.
Faced with a major economic crisis as a result of the protests and pandemic, the Hong Kong government announced another ‘exceptional measure’ in February 2020, including $9 billion in cash payments to Hong Kong permanent residents, or about $1,200 per resident. With economists criticizing this approach as ‘untargeted and regressive’, many saw a political motive: an attempt to buy support from citizens after a year in which the government’s popularity had steadily eroded. Pro-Beijing lawmakers indicated that the economic relief package was expected to rally public support for the government. While polling suggests that the government’s overall coronavirus response failed to gain public support, targeted aid to struggling industries may have been more successful in bringing to heel politically influential groups, such as property developers, who had begun to stray from the government’s camp.
Non-democratic governments may enjoy a strategic decisionmaking advantage during crises given their greater degree of insulation from public pressure. For example, China’s ‘mask diplomacy’—where it sent large shipments of personal protective equipment abroad—would have been far less politically tenable in a representative democracy engrossed in crisis. The same dynamic may very well apply to Hong Kong, where China recognized a geopolitical opportunity to strike a blow against the pro-democracy movement while the US and other Western democracies were distracted and constrained in their response.
In August 2020, Beijing passed national security legislation that empowered the Hong Kong government to arrest anyone engaged in ‘subversion of the power or authority of the central government’. This broad language criminalized advocating for Hong Kong’s independence or criticizing the Chinese Communist Party’s policy towards Hong Kong, including on social media, with a maximum penalty of life imprisonment. The passage of the law led many countries to suspend their extradition agreements with Hong Kong and some, like the United States, to threaten an end to the trade and travel privileges Hong Kong has long enjoyed. Yet there was also a general consensus that China had chosen a strategically opportune time to tighten its grip on Hong Kong, as its rivals were consumed by the twin public health and economic emergencies.
Beyond the current crisis
While some blowback against the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong was inevitable, the coronavirus pandemic created the conditions for Beijing and its supporters in the territory’s government to reverse the gains of 2019 and severely erode Hong Kong’s autonomy. The pandemic has endowed the Hong Kong government with emergency powers and leverage over public support, while providing Beijing with a strategically opportune time to clamp down. Over the last few months, these dynamics have played out beyond Hong Kong—to different degrees, from Minsk to Minneapolis. And they may apply to a broader array of crises beyond global pandemics, such as those stemming from climate change. These possibilities reinforce the importance of examining Hong Kong as a test case for how Covid-19, and crises like it, ail and enervate movements for expanded democracy.