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United we stand -
if leaders can rise above the fray

Could an invisible virus help a divided city heal? The Covid-19 threat offers the Hong Kong Government a unique opportunity to bring the city together.

By VIJAY VERGHESE
Hong Kong, April 2020

Covid-19 - Masked passengers in the Hong Kong MTR

Masked passengers in the Hong Kong MTR - could a virus get diametrically opposed political combatants on the same page?

AS HONG KONG declared a red alert over Covid-19 fears, crowds have thinned and once thrumming streets are largely empty. Schools are closed. Yet, amidst the unruly stampede for toilet paper, there is an opportunity for this beleaguered city.

With the citizens’ focus distracted by health and economic fears, the government – while deeply unloved and seen as transitional – has a curious chance to bridge divides and revive the community.

Emergencies have a habit of creating common ground, bringing diverse or opposed groups together to face a bigger foe – and the novel coronavirus that has brought the world to its knees is a super threat by any reckoning.

Crises encourage governments to assume emergency powers and rally support for unpopular actions. This sudden power is a double-edged sword. It is just as easily applied by strongmen to stifle political opposition, as it is to combat an existential threat.

Vijay Verghese

Vijay Verghese


Tempting as it may be to further hobble the opposition, the government can rise above the squabbles to take advantage of the first chance in months to have a serious crack at repairing the social and political fallout of the black-shirt protests and administrative bullheadedness

Which option might Hong Kong choose? Tempting as it may be to further hobble the opposition, the government can rise above the squabbles to take advantage of the first chance in months to have a serious crack at repairing the social and political fallout of the black-shirt protests and administrative bullheadedness. This cannot come too soon.

The extreme polarisation that has beset the city has already seen an emerging ‘yellow’ crypto-economy that discriminates against Mainland visitors by boorishly claiming only Cantonese is spoken at certain establishments. However deep the grudge, a ‘yellow’ economy is not the smartest prescription for a ‘world city’ seen as a cosmopolitan financial hub. This is just one of the unhealthy outcomes of an us-versus-them narrative that has pervaded all aspects of life in the city creating a dangerous and growing fault line as yet unaddressed by any remedial government initiative.

Militant discontent bubbles just below the surface of the eerie coronavirus calm. In early March police raids across the city netted 2.6 tonnes of chemicals purportedly to make bombs intended to force the closure of the Hong Kong-China crossings. Border closure has been a demand by vulnerable frontline health professionals too who wish to block inroads by the novel coronavirus.

On 4 October 2019 the government wheeled out a musty 1922 Emergency Regulations Ordinance to put an end to protest facemasks. In times of ‘public danger’ the ERO permits the CE to act in the ‘public interest’ with unbridled actions including censorship, arrest, detention, property forfeiture and compensations. It is an ordinance conferring unlimited powers and it is open to abuse. It was challenged by the courts and rightly so.

Still, special powers can enable CE Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor to launch all manner of remedial action to help ‘all’ of Hong Kong, blue or yellow and all shades in between. It has taken bold, if belated, steps to keep Covid-19 at bay. Even without any special powers the situation is ripe for white knight intervention. So what might the government do?

For a start, the novel coronavirus lockdown has created a serious crisis in education. Schools are shut but knowledge needs to flow. More quality professors need to be sourced, existing teachers put on secure contracts, teaching assistants marshalled, kindergartens fully staffed and new technologies sought to help compensate for lack of classroom interaction.

While no one would refuse instant gratification, a confetti-shower cash handout that is not targeted or need-based simply ends up siphoning money away to many who do not need it. These funds would better serve marginal or distressed elements

The current downtime is perfect for retooling teaching skills and looking at ways to improve the quality of education, not through dogmatic insistence on love of the Motherland and pushbutton patriotism but by developing genuinely top-notch human capital. Impacting positively on – and investing massively in – schools and universities is something that can be done right away. It is an investment in the future of Hong Kong. And it beneficially impacts the group most implacably opposed to the current administration.

The Government’s recent HK$120 billion budget with cuts in profits tax, loans for small businesses and HK$10,000 cash handouts for Hong Kong permanent residents over 18, is a flailing stab in the right direction but the territory would fare better with fewer short-term sops and more planned long-term investment and confidence-building for the morning after.

While no one would refuse instant gratification, a confetti-shower cash handout that is not targeted or need-based simply ends up siphoning money away to many who do not need it. These funds would better serve marginal or distressed elements like the unemployed, the homeless, the elderly, the disabled, freelance workers, or those wrestling with the demands of childcare. Rescue money could flow into the Mandatory Provident Fund (rather than into hands) where it immediately becomes part of a useful investment cycle. The MPF safety net was, in fact, a by-product of the crippling 1997 stock market crash. Dispensing instant money brings smiles, not relief, and memory is cruelly short.

Similarly, while tackling hard-hit retail businesses and the eviscerated travel industry, treasury-draining handouts cannot be the sole weapons in the recovery arsenal. A qualified bipartisan task force could be created to speedily identify issues – economic, social, or psychological – and recommend solutions. This cannot wait for China to go through its own painful reboot. Time is of the essence.

While the novel coronavirus menace lingers – and there is every indication this may become systemic while vaccines are sought – the Government needs to move decisively on masks, medical supplies and health facilities. This is a tailor made opportunity for cross-aisle initiatives. Watching the elderly queue up at ungodly hours for limited stock is an appalling reminder of administrative negligence. It does not build confidence.

Essential in all this is an understanding that the lame duck Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor government is transitional in nature (this needs to be made explicit) else there is a very real chance the CE’s re-emergence will upset the apple cart all over again. While leaders leading from the front have given the world heart, it is an indication of the strange times that beset Hong Kong that Ms Lam’s deafening silence has been something of a salve. But now it’s time to act to bridge the divide.

Vijay Verghese started out as a reporter for the Times of India, a national daily, in 1979. He moved to Bangkok and thence to Hong Kong in 1984 as editor and publisher of a range of news, business, travel and lifestyle publications including Business Traveller, HOLIDAY Asia, and Asian Business. He launched Dancing Wolf Media in 2002 and runs the online magazines SmartTravelAsia.com and AsianConversations.com when not dabbling in avatars, music and virtual guff.

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heidi perkins (2 April, 2020) – UK
A thoughtful essay on the 'positive' power of the [Covid-19] virus. It is a shame to see the territory riven with deep divisions. I hope the city rediscovers its groove, preferably without the virus
Will Hann (2 April, 2020) – Hong Kong
A very optimistic view of Hong Kong but I agree with the writer that this is a good time to move forward with political bridges. Unfortunately, the city's leadership does not have a clue about most things. I do not see the city coming together as a result of the coronavirus. But if it did I would cheer.

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