It is now abundantly clear that the Covid-19 pandemic has changed much more than our health regimens and our economic, social and psychological worlds for perhaps years to come. Face masks, disinfectant, temperature checks, quarantines, social distancing and the like may be the new norms.

But so it seems is the geopolitical quarantine the United States and its Western allies are trying to impose on China. If successful this will put Hong Kong, already between a rock and a hard place as a special administrative region of an autocratic China yearning for Western-style democracy, in an even more precarious position. 

Pro-democracy activists import face masks. Photo: Demosisto.

Of course, as Beijing continues to slash away at Hong Kong’s personal freedoms and undertakes a virtual rewrite of portions of the Basic Law, the city’s mini-constitution guaranteeing those freedoms, it is only natural for many Hongkongers to cheer when China is called out for its initial cover-up of the virus’s appearance. 

The pandemic has once again thrown into stark relief China’s dangerous lack of transparency concerning any issue that could bring embarrassment to the country’s authoritarian leadership and harm to the world.  

Those Hongkongers leading the anti-China cheers sincerely believe that their treasured home and unique East-West culture are under assault by the central government, with the ultimate aim of turning the “One Country, Two Systems” promise of the 1997 handover from British to Chinese sovereignty into a “One Country, One System” betrayal. 

They are not wrong, but this Covid-19-triggered campaign by Western powers to vilify and contain China will only harden Beijing’s resolve to increase its global influence, while at the same time furthering its crackdown on rebellious Hong Kong.  

Photo: May James/HKFP.

Indeed, for Chinese leaders, from President Xi Jinping on down, it is obvious that little old Hong Kong has become a very big symbol in Beijing’s heightening conflict with the West, especially the United States.

The US congress has already passed legislation, the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, that would impose sanctions on China and on Hong Kong officials responsible for human rights abuses in the city. 

Now, in what would be a virtual act of war, US President Donald J. Trump is threatening to sue China, despite international (and US) law barring such lawsuits, for the death and damage caused by the coronavirus in his country.

At this point, the US tops the world with nearly 1.3 million Covid-19 cases and 80,000 fatalities that Trump blames entirely on China’s failure to contain and accurately report the contagion’s initial spread in Wuhan. 

In another moment of madness, White House officials have reportedly broached the idea of cancelling the US$1.1 trillion debt that Washington owes to China – a move that would surely completely destroy investor confidence in the US and send the world economy reeling.

Donald Trump and Xi Jinping. File photo: White House, via Flickr.

Clearly, with Trump’s popularity plummeting as Covid-19 ravages the US ahead of a November presidential election, blaming China is his last best hope for reelection. 

That explains why what was previously a totally unproven far-right fringe theory that Covid-19 was accidentally leaked – or, worse, deliberately released – from the Wuhan Institute of Virology now features in presidential news conferences and the speeches of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. 

That, too, is crazy, and it is positively terrifying that all this insanity is breaking out at the highest levels of the US government. 

China has not taken these charges lying down. The foreign ministry shot back with a number of choice adjectives for American politicians who blame China for the spread of the virus: “shameless,” “morally repulsive,” “immoral” and ‘inhuman” – to name a few.

In addition, state media went after Pompeo with a fury, excoriating him as an “enemy of humankind,” a “political virus” and a “super-spreader.”

Indeed, the competition for global supremacy appears to have descended into schoolyard taunts worthy of poorly behaved middle schoolers. 

Meanwhile, political leaders and industry experts in the US, across Europe and in Australia are encouraging companies to remove industrial supply chains from China – the new mantra is “decoupling” – as the European Union calls for an independent investigation into the origin of the novel coronavirus that China is resisting. 

File photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

With much of the West still flattened by Covid-19, a presidential election looming in the US and China’s future growth in peril, more and even greater conflicts almost assuredly lie ahead.

Where does this leave little old Hong Kong?

Squashed in the middle. 

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Kent Ewing

Kent Ewing is a teacher and writer who has lived in Hong Kong for more than two decades. He has written for the pre-Alibaba South China Morning Post, The Standard, Asia Times and Asia Sentinel. Allegations to the contrary, he insists he is not a colonial fossil. Follow him on Twitter.