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Crises in Hong Kong and the Ethics of Governance

Hong Kong has experienced extraordinary challenges in the past eight months since June 2019. From the 6-month intensive protest movement in the second half of 2019 to the outbreak of coronavirus (Covid-19) epidemic early this year, people have experienced waves of crisis one after the other. What has been the performance of the local government? What do these realities tell us about the ethics of governance?

First, since June 2019, thousands of people joined the anti-extradition bill movement. This bill allows the Hong Kong government to transfer fugitives to jurisdictions that Hong Kong does not have an extradition agreement with, and mainland China is one of them. The scale and frequency of the protest reflect the urgency and importance of the issue. People resisted not because they opposed the general principles of the bill but because they distrusted the legal and judicial system in China and the many cases of unfair trial or imprisonment without a proper trial. Thus, this is a battle for freedom in Hong Kong.

While the protest movement slightly slowed down in January 2020, coronavirus spread to Hong Kong from China since mid-January. In the beginning, some observers wondered whether this could be an opportunity to set aside the previous political division and unifying Hong Kong people to fight against the epidemic. However, tension escalated when thousands of mainlanders flooded into Hong Kong through various borders every day. In the face of the large-scale outbreak of the epidemic in mainland China, with the origin from Wuhan of Hubei province, many people, including medical doctors, demanded that the HK government order a complete shutdown of the city’s borders with mainland China, just like the nearby city Macau. However, the slow response and gradual strategy used by the government attracted criticism. Many people felt the government was putting them at risk. The government lost its credibility; people lost their confidence in the government. Despite recurring assurances to the public that the cross-border delivery of daily necessities would not be affected, people felt panic and scrambled for masks, cleaning products, and food. There are long queues outside pharmacies and markets every day.

At this difficult time, the city is crying out for strong and well-prepared leadership that will free its citizens from fear and further panic, while also maintaining healthy cross-border ties.


Ethics of Governance

The two crises look like two different issues. But they reflect a similar problem of governance.

In the Catholic tradition, the willingness to serve people and care for their needs, respect for basic rights, and attentiveness to people’s voices are important factors of good governance.

Those who exercise authority should do so as a service. Jesus tells us that, “if anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all” (Mark 9:35). Political authorities are obliged to respect the fundamental rights of the human person. The political rights attached to citizenship can and should be granted according to the requirements of the common good. As the Vatican II document Gaudium et spes points out: “Political authority, both in the community as such and in the representative bodies of the state, must always be exercised within the limits of the moral order and directed toward the common good, according to the juridical order legitimately established or due to be established….. Accordingly, the responsibility, dignity, and importance of leaders are indeed clear” (GS 74).

In the Chinese Confucian tradition, Mencius, the best-known disciple of Confucius, when asked about the role of a benevolent ruler, pointed out that “people come first, the altars of the earth and grain (signifying political authority or the state) come afterward, the ruler comes last” (Mencius 7B:14). If a ruler is benevolent, righteous, and correct, the people will follow, and the state will be settled (Mencius 4A:20). Otherwise, the state will decay and perish.


Problems of Governance

In the recent coronavirus epidemic, two points were most criticized by the public. One is the delay in close down the borders and the indecisiveness in halting mainland visitors to Hong Kong. The other is the failure to purchase masks, not only for the general public but even for medical staff working in public hospitals. Both relate to inefficient governance.

At the early stage of the epidemic, many people, including the medical experts, advised the government publicly that it was important to close most of the borders to prevent the spreading of the virus. However, rather than listen to these admonitions, the government took a gradual closing strategy, hoping that the cross-border flow of people will automatically decrease. Claiming that large numbers of Hongkongers themselves still needed to cross the border, and barring all mainlanders from entering would be discriminatory, the government refused to close all the border crossings, insisting that such request was neither practical nor necessary.

Given the limited medical resources in HK, 2,700 medical staff launched the first phase of a strike to pressure the government into ordering a total border shutdown. They challenged the government on how important they value public health and safety. Only when it was reported that more Hong Kong people have been infected by the virus did government changed its mind on February 2 and announced the closedown of most of the major land border checkpoints. A mandatory 14-day quarantine order was also imposed on all travelers arriving from the mainland from February 8 onwards. Classes at all levels have been suspended and many events were postponed or canceled. Unfortunately, these necessary measures came too late.

As commentator Kevin Lau said, if the first phase of the measures to restrict the flow of people was implemented on January 30, including the closing of most border crossings and compulsory quarantine for 14 days, the epidemic situation would be completely different. The confidence of Hong Kong citizens and the international community in the SAR would not fall, and medical strikes would never happen.

The unavailability of masks in the market is also a sign of failure of governance. Apart from its inability to purchase masks for the public, the government failed to take emergency measures such as announcing the production and distribution of the Correctional Services Department’s masks. It also adhered to the rules of non-intervention in the operation of the market. As a result, the market was chaotic and disorderly in selling and buying masks.

We can see similar problems of governance in the protest movement. The government ignored the people’s call for a withdrawal of the extradition the bill formally, despite the million-people-rallies and the advice given by the legal profession. Not only did the government refuse to compromise, but it also supported the abuse of power by the police force in their use of increasingly violent and inhumane means against the protesters, especially the use of lethal weapons and disproportionate force during arrests and investigations. During the first six months of protest, weapons, including tear-gas, pepper spray, rubber bullets, and water cannons were used 30,000 times. Thousands of protesters were hurt, and some seriously injured. Many people felt that the police did not treat protesters as human persons, but as “cockroaches”.

Moreover, over 6,000 people have been arrested, and some were prosecuted. However, no police officer has yet been charged for offensive and illegal actions. For a long time, the internal complaint mechanism has not been impartial. As a result, the level of violence escalated on both sides; the society was in chaos. That is why many people request for an independent commission to investigate the excessive use of power and the reasons behind the protest.

As stated in the 52nd Message of the World Day of Peace in 2019 by Pope Francis: “Politics is an essential means of building human community and institutions, but when political life is not seen as a form of service to society as a whole, it can become a means of oppression, marginalization and even destruction” (no.2). “Those who serve in the public office should make every effort to protect the people who live there and to create the conditions for a worthy and just future. All politicians have to work together for the good of the human family and to practice those human virtues that sustain all sound political activity: justice, equality, mutual respect, sincerity, honesty, fidelity” (no.3). However, the Hong Kong government fails to do this.


Signs of Goodness & Solidarity

In spite of the challenges and frustration we face in the past year, we see signs of goodness among people.

With the limited supply of masks and cleaning products, some parishes and church organizations, as well as other NGOs, have appealed to those who have extra resources to donate, especially to the low-income workers and the poor. Like a miracle, these groups were able to collect a few thousand masks and sanitizers and distribute them to the needy. Moreover, some private companies and corporations use their networks and resources to look for masks and sell them to people at a reasonable price; some even distribute to the medical staff and the marginalized freely.

Numerous medical staff spared no effort to take care of the patients, even those who were on strike for a week. Because of the stubbornness of the government, the striking medical workers chose not to let Hong Kong patients suffer, and thus, they returned to work.

In the protest movement, many social workers, first-aid workers, designers, lawyers, and many other people volunteered in and contributed to the movement according to their expertise. For the good of the whole society, many of them sacrificed their time and financial resources, and even have to face pressure from their employers. All these are acts of solidarity.

In fact, according to the Catholic principle of participation, in any healthy society, civil organizations and individuals always have a role or duty to play, allowing members of a society to contribute to the civil community through exercising their agency. However, this should not be an excuse for the state to escape from its responsibility for good governance on behalf of the common good.