By US Congressman Ted Yoho

Across the world, governments are taking necessary steps to tackle the coronavirus and keep their citizens safe. But Hong Kong has been hit by a one-two punch: President Xi Jinping seems determined to use the outbreak to increase control over the semi-autonomous region, and Chief Executive Carrie Lam is doing nothing to stand in his way.

Hong Kong is particularly vulnerable to the spread of the coronavirus as a result of decisions made directly by the Chief Executive. For one, the introduction of a ban on face masks in October, designed to stop peaceful protests, has exacerbated the shortage of masks city-wide, to the point where the Government is largely unable to provide masks to vulnerable senior citizens living in poverty.

Xi Jinping. File photo: CCTV.

Further, Carrie Lam has refused to close the border with mainland China to reduce the risk of coronavirus transmission, despite weeks of protest by medics led by the Hospital Authority Employees Alliance.

Shortages of masks, hand sanitizer, toilet paper, rice, and empty supermarket shelves are what you might expect to find in a failed state, not in one of the financial powerhouses of the world. Yet all of these conditions have rapidly become a part of daily life for many Hong Kong residents, and have further fueled rising levels distrust in the Hong Kong Government.

The uneasy mood across the city is due in large part to the ineptitude of the Hong Kong Government. Eight months of violently suppressing protests and punishing activists has left Carrie Lam with little legitimacy when it comes to handling the coronavirus. 

Of course, the situation in Hong Kong is not as dire as that of mainland China, where we are witnessing the unprecedented lockdown of millions of people. However, after over 60 confirmed cases and two fatalities, all museums, schools, and universities are closed and much of the population have opted for self-quarantine.

Photo: Kelly Ho, HKFP

Viruses know no borders, no political affiliation and no belief system. This makes the decision by the Chinese Government to use this crisis as an opportunity to appoint Xia Baolong, a notorious ideological hardliner to the position of Director of Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, all the more perplexing. Xia, a close ally of Xi Jinping, received international condemnation in 2014 and 2015 for waging an ideological war against Christians, which involved tearing down 2,000 crosses and demolishing entire churches. 

Xia’s appointment last week sends a clear signal that Beijing plans to tighten its grip on Hong Kong by continuing to curb the rights of civil society by increasing the PRC’s direct involvement and diminishing the role of Beijing’s liaison office. This is a worrying development for policymakers in the United States as well, where the US-Hong Kong Policy Act and Hong Kong’s special trade status is based on a high degree of autonomy of Hong Kong from the PRC. 

The Chinese people deserve all the help and resources the international community can give to tackle the coronavirus, but at the same time, we must be ready to prevent the Chinese Communist Party form using the crisis to advance its political agenda. Whether it’s the steady encroachment of state-sponsored surveillance or the purging of party moderates in favour of hardliners in key positions, the coronavirus has offered President Xi the perfect cover.

For these reasons and more, I led the first Congressional hearing into the rapid spread of coronavirus as Ranking Member of the Asia Pacific Subcommittee. The findings were clear in detailing how the authoritarian government in Beijing is unwilling to offer the global community an accurate account of the spread of coronavirus in China and remains unapologetic in its refusal to embrace transparency. 

Now is not the time to allow petty grievances to overwhelm decisive action, which is why I have urged the creation of a global coalition to stop the spread of the coronavirus. This should include Taiwan, which remains excluded from the World Health Organization by China and was pivotal in helping to tackle the SARS virus seventeen years ago.

World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. File photo: UN.

Now is also not the time to forget our commitment to the promotion of human rights. While China is rightly focused on mobilising resources to fight the spread of the coronavirus, we cannot ignore the continued secrecy and entrenched authoritarianism that has allowed it to spread so quickly both domestically and abroad.

I stand with the people of Hong Kong who are on the frontline of fighting the coronavirus and increased authoritarianism from Beijing. Chief Executive Lam should follow the example of the USA and listen to medics on strike in closing the border with mainland China. The Hong Kong Government should also begin providing face masks to senior citizens and other vulnerable groups irrespective of the cost. Finally, steps must be taken by the international community to reform the World Health Organization so that no country is able to hide the spread of a deadly virus.  The people of Hong Kong deserve better than to have their health put into jeopardy by a government more concerned with political wins than the lives of their citizens. 

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