Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam during a press conference on Covid-19 restrictions on April 12, 2021. Photo: AFP / Vernon Yuen / NurPhoto

Hospital beds for Covid patients arranged in the open-air parking lots outside hospitals this winter while thousands waiting for medical attention is something no one would have imagined could happen in Hong Kong. Any such warning would have met with disbelief and derision. 

But it is a sign of the times. Clueless leaders rule over the city.

Hong Kong was known for its super-efficient bureaucracy, robust economy, and public services. It held the fifth position in the world ranking for official foreign reserves when China in July 1997 regained control of the barren rock and pirates’ hideout that Britain took in the 19th century. 

The territory’s last British governor Chris Patten described it aptly. China was receiving the “greatest dowry since Cleopatra.”

An equally significant factor at the time of the handover was that Hong Kong was a city where people had respectable civil rights but were not too bothered about democracy and were happy to make a career or chase their dreams of a business empire. 

Thanks to their drive and enterprise, Hong Kong remained wealthy, and its foreign reserves grew organically to almost half a trillion US dollars by the latest count.

But the succession of new administrators Beijing picked to manage the reunited region lacked any understanding of the delicate balance needed to steer it forward for the benefit of China and the Hong Kong people.

Lulled by Hong Kong’s economic strength and blinded by the loyalty to the new master, the Communist Party of China, they believed that things would be under control as long as people could make money. CPC leaders accepted it, as that was also the way on the mainland. If more than a billion people on the mainland can be kept under control this way, why can’t just 7.4 million in Hong Kong? 

Thus, together they made a mess of everything and ignited territory-wide protests. It led to confidence in the territory sliding. 

The signal that the CPC missed was the lack of popular support for local political parties aligned with Beijing. 

These parties could muster a crowd with the promise of gifts of rice and free banquets during festivals, but their leaderships were filled with those who looked to please Beijing and the rich and connected in the city. 

As the handpicked chief executives filled their cabinets with cronies and loyalists, the well-honed government machinery that Hong Kong was proud of began to sputter and stall.

The rot set in the top levels of the government soon began percolating down to the lower levels, and cracks started appearing in vital sectors like healthcare. 

During the 2003 outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), even as the city’s health system responded quickly to bring the epidemic under control, the then-secretary for health Margaret Chan was found wanting as political considerations of pleasing Beijing seemed to be her priority. (She was eventually rewarded by China, which backed her to be the head of the World Health Organization soon after.)

Beijing left things to drift, and there were no directives from the CPC to fix the problems of the rising wealth gap, housing shortage, and the health sector that seemed to have learned little from the 2003 SARS outbreak. Moreover, despite their practice of deep-rooted surveillance across the mainland, and an estimated 400,000 party cadres operating secretly in Hong Kong, CPC leaders failed to grasp the reality in their new domain. 

The fault doesn’t lie entirely with Beijing, though. Tycoons who hijacked the government policies to suit their empires, an old-boys network that still nurses a colonial hangover, a section of wealthy expats who could never see beyond the tip of their noses or outside the bubbles they live in, and impunity of the top officials – all played a part in Hong Kong’s decline.

The simmering problems led political leaders and students to push some poorly thought-out plans for reforms with universal suffrage as the core demand.

The 79-day peaceful protest in 2014 called the Occupy Central movement resulted from this. But Beijing’s local administrators at the time, chief executive Leung Chun-ying and his chief secretary, Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor – who later succeeded Leung as the chief executive – didn’t get it.

To them, the protesters were enemies of the state, while the Chinese leadership, remembering the international backlash suffered for how they dealt with a similar student protest in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 1989, decided to sit it out so that the students would get tired and disperse. That, indeed, was what happened.  

However, this fizzled-out protest had awakened the apolitical general public, and a significant number of them began leaning toward the student protesters. As a result, in the 2019 District Council election, the pro-democracy group won in all but one constituency.

Hong Kong watchers noticed the resentment building up and pointed it out in newspaper articles and other public forums. But Beijing’s Hong Kong administrators chose to ignore it all. 

This political blunder led to prolonged street protests in 2019-20, and as is its wont, Beijing used its sledgehammer approach to quell the dissent.

Alarm bells were ringing loudly in the hospital sector well before this as people had to wait for months for an appointment. 

Hospital buildings were completed, but floors were left vacant for want of doctors and nurses. In addition, the unions representing doctors objected to recruiting qualified personnel from abroad, to protect their members.

In 2020, the new union formed by health workers took to the streets demanding more safety gear and change in government health policies as the pandemic erupted. But the government’s reaction was to accuse them of playing politics and jail its leaders.

By painting every protest and demand in black and white, Beijing and Hong Kong authorities have silenced the city in their belief that the Party comes first, not the people. As the main focus of the CPC was to eliminate all dissent, nothing else mattered. Even the checks and balances in place had gone out of the window while a few out-of-touch bureaucrats were given charge of an already creaking government machinery. 

Hong Kong is now reaping the results of that policy as its health sector wilts under the rising Covid cases.

On the global stage, the CPC is pushing a narrative to show how their top-down system of governance is superior to the Western democratic ways as even developed countries like the United States, Canada and Britain struggle to heal the rifts that appear in their societies.

One example Beijing held up as evidence was how it managed to tackle the Covid-19 pandemic compared with other countries. But the way Hong Kong is unraveling points to the flaws in the Communist governance system. 

Provincial leaders picked for Party loyalty often are more eager to please the leaders than serve the people, a fact well illustrated by the Wuhan administration’s ill-fated decisions when the coronavirus outbreaks started in 2019. 

Hong Kong government’s decision to follow Beijing’s zero-covid policy has led to this crisis. 

A well-known health expert touched on the problem when he told the South China Morning Post why all Chinese policies wouldn’t work elsewhere.

“Combining lockdown with repeated mass screening is more suitable under the mainland social system with its strong community infrastructure support,” Dr Leung Chi-chiu said. “As the Hong Kong scenario is rather different, we need to use our methods to slow the spread of the virus and speed up cutting of transmission links.”

But Beijing still holds on to its “my way or the highway” policy, pushing Hong Kong into a more profound crisis. 

Beating people into submission is something that Beijing can achieve. Whether it will have the same effect on a coronavirus is to be seen.

Hari Kumar

Hari Kumar is a journalist and columnist currently based in Kerala who has also worked in Qatar, Thailand, and Hong Kong, where he was world editor at the South China Morning Post and web editor at RTHK, among other positions.