Where the Pandemic Is Cover for Authoritarianism

In Hong Kong and around the world, public-health concerns are being used to excuse extraordinary overreach.

Riot police detain a man and a woman during a protest for press freedom on August 11 in Hong Kong. (Billy H.C. Kwok / Getty)

This month, two young men stood outside a high-end Hong Kong shopping mall, clutching bouquets of white flowers as they held a memorial for a protester who had died nearby last year. The event, like any marking the milestones or memories of the prodemocracy movement, drew police attention; more than a dozen gathered to keep watch, one holding a video camera to record the events. When a passerby stopped to join the pair, police stepped in. The city’s social-distancing regulations stipulate that gatherings must be limited to two people, so the officers surrounded the mourners to question them before handing them tickets for breaking the rules.

Just one day earlier, a humid Friday evening, an after-work crowd had gathered in a trendy district of the city, lining the street for happy-hour drinks, unbothered by police. Some congregated outside a corner 7-Eleven to buy cans of beer, with images showing groups well above the allowed number.

The double standard was not a one-off. When Roy Tam and a group of fellow prodemocracy district councilors organized a media event to criticize the Hong Kong government’s pandemic testing plan last week, they took precautions to make sure they were not breaking the rules. The group wore masks, stood in groups of two, and distanced themselves from one another in front of a sports center that the government is converting into a testing center. Those efforts, and the fact that they were elected officials, didn’t satisfy the police. Officers quickly converged on the group, cordoned off with bright-orange tape the small gaggle of media that had come to cover the event, and began doling out fines. Tam wasn’t surprised. Since regulations were introduced this year, they have been “more strict for the prodemocracy protesters,” he told me. Another prodemocracy politician was recently fined while handing out free masks to city residents. “They are using this law politically to suppress the freedom of assembly in Hong Kong,” Tam said.

Though the coronavirus has posed an enormous challenge for world leaders, it has also presented an opportunity—for those who wish to consolidate power, pandemic containment rules offer a convenient tool to stifle inconvenient dissent. Here in Hong Kong, for example, the city’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, postponed legislative elections scheduled for September by an entire year, sapping momentum from a prodemocracy camp that looked poised to make sizable gains. (Lam has said that the move was not at all political and based solely on public-health concerns, but given the wide-ranging crackdown in the city over the past year, few have bought that justification.) Lam’s decision has also deepened a rift among serving prodemocracy lawmakers, and risks fragmenting a group that put aside long-held differences in opposition to Lam last year.

Hong Kong is hardly the only place where the pandemic has proved to be useful political cover. In Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu used the public-health crisis to shut down the country’s Parliament and judiciary—which enabled the prime minister to not only postpone his own corruption trial, but also authorize the security service to track citizens’ movements using cellphone data without legislative oversight. In Bolivia, a forthcoming general election has been twice delayed because of the pandemic—an excuse that opposition parties allege has allowed the country’s interim president to extend her rule. Poland did manage to hold presidential elections last month, but the ruling Law and Justice Party leveraged the crisis to its advantage by banning public events, making campaigning all but impossible. (The Law and Justice–backed incumbent, Andrzej Duda, who was free to organize public meetings and press conferences, remained largely unaffected.)

In Thailand, where protests against the government have grown in recent weeks to the largest in years and have expanded to criticize the largely untouchable monarchy, rights groups have warned that regulations enacted as a pandemic response serve ulterior motives. Measures “ostensibly aimed at protecting the Thai people from a public-health threat” are being misused to “harass and obstruct peaceful protesters,” Matthew Bugher, the Asia-program head at the British human-rights organization Article 19, wrote in June. Elsewhere, Algeria’s government utilized the crisis to halt a year-long protest movement against the country’s ruling elites. Similar bans on public demonstrations were imposed in Chile, Lebanon, and the Philippines, where President Rodrigo Duterte authorized the police and military to shoot dead anyone found to be violating the country’s coronavirus restrictions. “Do not intimidate the government. Do not challenge the government,” Duterte warned in April. “You will lose.”

Many of these emergency powers have been passed in part because they are at least nominally impermanent. Desperate times, it has been collectively agreed, call for desperate measures. But these temporary laws often serve to strengthen executives who have already consolidated control. This is particularly true for Hungary, where in April Prime Minister Viktor Orbán passed legislation that would enable him to rule by decree indefinitely. Though some of the powers in that legislation have since been rolled back, its initial passage all but confirms Hungary’s transition into autocracy. “What Victor Orbán wants to have happen tomorrow happens,” Michael Ignatieff, the president of Central European University in Budapest and the former leader of the Liberal Party in Canada, said in an interview. “There are no counter-majoritarian pressures against him.”

The shift in Hong Kong is particularly stark. Prodemocracy protests erupted in the city last year, drawing millions into the street. The government, and authorities in Beijing, at first used the police force to try to stem the demonstrations, ultimately unsuccessfully. But more aggressive police tactics coupled with the onset of the pandemic helped to keep the dissent largely at bay early in 2020. Beijing then imposed a sprawling national-security law that has seen a prominent newspaper owner arrested, activists forced to flee the city, and protest slogans criminalized in an attempt to strike them from the popular lexicon and collective memory. And now, a renewed wave of infections in the city has raised questions over whether the authorities are once again using the pandemic to kill off any last vestiges of protest.

“One of the themes in observing what is happening in Hong Kong over the past year or more is the theme of equal application of the law,” Ben Cowling, the head of the epidemiology and biostatistics department at University of Hong Kong’s School of Public Health, told me. “With social-distancing regulations, concerns have been raised that the rules are not being applied fairly to different groups … In some cases, there is an enthusiastic application of the law in places where it is not really necessary.”

When the number of COVID-19 cases began to climb last month, the authorities barred restaurants from serving dine-in customers after 6 p.m., limited gatherings to two people, and made wearing a mask mandatory, though the majority of people already wore them. (Cases in Hong Kong nevertheless remain relatively low: In this city of 7.4 million, fewer than 550 patients are in the hospital for treatment, and fewer than 80 people have died since the outbreak began in the city in January.)

Yet enforcement of the measures has highlighted some of the political, social, and economic tensions that run through Hong Kong. This month, officials took aim at the city’s sizable population of foreign domestic workers: Swarms of police swept through parks and popular gathering points where workers spend Sundays, typically their one day off a week, with a jumbo-size blue tape measure to illustrate the spacing regulations, a move that struck some as demeaning. The standard $250 fine for violating social-distancing rules is also particularly painful for this group: The minimum wage for domestic workers is just under $600 a month. But it is not only the money and treatment by police: The uneven enforcement indirectly tells “the Hong Kong people that domestic workers are virus spreaders and we don’t care about fighting COVID-19,” Sringatin, the chairperson of the Indonesian Migrant Workers Union, told me (like many Indonesians, she goes by one name). For comparison, Cowling pointed to popular shopping districts nearby, where large crowds were allowed to gather and people continued about their day without issue.

The latter example spotlights the two groups that seem to be largely immune from penalties in Hong Kong: white expatriates and wealthy residents. Peel Street, a short, steep stretch of road near the city’s Central district that is lined with trendy bars and restaurants, has become a barometer of perceived hypocrisy in rule enforcement. Photos of the street packed with people that make it look as if a fraternity is hosting a party with a business casual theme often circulate on social media, and snarky, critical comments pile up. This spring, University of Hong Kong professors used one in a slideshow to chastise people for letting their guard down.

One evening in May—when regulations on gatherings were looser than they are today but still somewhat restrictive—I watched as seven police officers made their way up the street, the throng of drinkers parting, some more sure-footed than others, to let them pass. A few revelers hoisted their drinks in the officers’ direction; another man picked a woman up by the hips and carried her down the hill. Police reached the top of the street and turned around, waving flashlights toward the crowd, meekly telling them to move along. Few listened, however, and a handful even laughed at them. The officers quickly abandoned the effort and walked off, leaving the party to continue unabated. (Ironically, the street is named after Robert Peel, the British politician who served twice as prime minister and founded London’s Metropolitan Police Force. His nine principles of policing include a dedication to “impartial service to law” and an “offering of individual service and friendship to all members of the public without regard to their wealth or social standing.”)

A few days prior to that incident, Lo Kin-hei, another prodemocracy district councilor, was ticketed for social-distancing violations during a demonstration outside the Liaison Office of the Central People’s Government in response to news that officials in Beijing would draft the national-security law. Lo later told me that the contradictions in enforcement were nakedly obvious. “It is just a very convenient way to make use of the coronavirus epidemic in Hong Kong,” he said. “It is basically used as a means to kill off all the protests.”

Yasmeen Serhan contributed reporting.