No democracy means people vote with their jabs|Michael Cox

Published (HKT): 2021.04.06 08:56

The widespread suspicion of the Chinese-made Sinovac “CoronaVac” vaccine – like the rejection of mandatory COVID-19 testing, or the huge uptake in BNO passport offers and apparent withdrawal of students from elite schools – is just the latest de-facto referendum in Hong Kong that illustrates a deep distrust of authorities.

Last time the Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing pawns left themselves open to a public vote – the 2019 District Council Elections – it ended badly for them. They have since set about dismantling any semblance of democracy to hide their shame. What they can’t hide are numbers like the lack of enthusiasm for vaccinations.

In lieu of a public vote, the people’s dissatisfaction is now expressed in other ways: the most recent expression of unease is in the sluggish response to vaccination programs.

The only thing more stunning than the landslide 2019 District Council result – in which pro-Beijing parties were spectacularly swept out of power as pro-democratic candidates secured 17 of 18 districts riding an unprecedented wave of voter turnout – was the fact that the establishment thought they were going to win.

Despite millions marching in the streets in the face of brutal police actions, it was the Chinese Communist Party(CCP) media mouthpieces billing the district council elections as a referendum on support for the protesters or police. State media outlets reportedly had propaganda press releases written and ready to trumpet a win for the establishment and were caught out when the shock results rolled in.

The wheels were already in motion to snuff out dissent through mass street arrests, the formulation of National Security Law and attacks on the court and press, but the District Council elections marked a turning point: after losing face – and all credibility in such spectacular fashion – there was no way the CCP was letting Hong Kong people near the polling booths under the current system.

We don’t have space to list all of the ways in which Hong Kong’s electoral system has been dismantled but, in summary, those with opposition views to the CCP have not just been banned, they have been charged and jailed.

That might mean that, with no opposition, those in charge can operate politically in blissful ignorance – laws can be rushed through, new policies created without debate ­– but in practice it means trouble. Democracies have votes for a reason, but it is obvious that the government’s great obsession is silencing dissent, not effective governance.

Most credit for success in combating COVID-19 should be given to the Hong Kong people, it is their awareness and fear of viruses, combined with a willingness to wear masks and remain vigilant that has mitigated what could have been a disaster.

The relative unpopularity and general suspicion of the Sinovac jab is no surprise, but unlike western countries unfamiliar with pandemics, the reluctance can’t be put down to COVID-19 conspiracy theories or anti-vaxxer movements.

The troubles with the Pfizer-BioNTech doses, which were put on hold for nearly two weeks because of packing problems, seem to have further highlighted the concerns around Sinovac.

As of Monday, the proportion of fully vaccinated Hongkongers stands at little more than one per cent of the population, and just 6.4% of the population has had at least one shot.

On one hand the poor numbers speak to an inefficient government rollout, but – given the most accessible vaccine is the Sinovac – it screams a lack of trust in the CCP’s mainland system. The typical lack of transparency from mainland authorities with regards to clinical studies of the Sinovac vaccine is obvious to most Hongkongers. Who knows? It might be apparent to many mainlanders too, after all, there is a reason baby formula is a more popular product in Sha Tin than it is in Shenzhen.

This is the reality Hong Kong officials must live with. Having extinguished political opposition and going “full Beijing”, Hong Kong’s officials must deal with the dysfunction that comes with denying universal suffrage. No accountability, less checks and balances and systems that stop working as well as they should, if at all.

Brutal policing and the insidious effects of National Security Law mean Hongkongers – whether they be a political figure or person on the street – can no longer voice their dissent publicly, but many indicators – both statistical and anecdotal – hint that the Carrie Lam-led government are now dealing with an undercurrent of fear that transcends “blue” and “yellow.”

On this topic, Andy Ho’s brilliant breakdown of data within last Friday entitled “Most informative item of 2021 census”, which called for an “intention to emigrate” question is required reading.

The piece outlines a number of statistics that point to a lack of trust in authorities and concerns for the future of Hong Kong including a rush on early withdrawals of Mandatory Provident Fund (MPF) accounts and a spike in interest around overseas property from Hong Kong buyers.

Andy also references the recent Ming Pao story reporting a drop in enrolments at elite schools. The statistics relating to more affluent citizens might be the most worrying trend of all for Lam and her cohorts, that it isn’t just ‘radical youth’ or those below the breadline upset with the state of Hong Kong. There was always the argument that the protests of 2019 were simply a matter of economics and equality, but it was never that simple, and the fact that even those who might have voted “blue” could be quietly packing suitcases and shifting interests offshore would prove that.

It would be naive to think that any asset outflow would be from pro-democracy supporters – Hong Kong’s financial elite are getting nervous too – and if they are any sort of students of CCP history, rightly so. The original Cultural Revolution wasn’t popular with the elite, and – like most sequels – the bad Hong Kong remake currently in production, with the working title “Cultural Revolution 2.0,” could be even worse for the top end of town.

It is one thing for people to choose BioNTech over Sinovac – or reject vaccines altogether out of fear – but those choices are just indicators of a far deeper malaise for Lam.

The Chief Executive even admitted in a recent Xinhua interview that it was a lack of trust in the government that was to blame for low vaccination rates.

Of course in the next breath she blamed the social unrest of more than a year ago for the lack of confidence, seemingly oblivious to the fact the social unrest was due to lack of trust in government in the first place.

Mind-bending, backwards and incoherent arguments and excuses from Lam via CCP state media are nothing new, but like those pro-Beijing supporters who expected positive results in the 2019 District Council Elections, the truly worrying part is that the CE and other CCP cheerleaders might actually believe what they are saying.

(Michael Cox is a journalist and Hong Kong permanent resident currently based in Australia. He has previously written for the South China Morning Post, The Age (Melbourne) and Australian Associated Press.)

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