Paris, 29 June 2022: “You can only predict things after they’ve happened,” remarked the late Romanian-born French playwright Eugène Ionesco, a leading figure in 20th century avant-garde theatre. While it seems appropriate to quote one of France’s favourite adopted sons as I pen this column from the Paris home of my daughter’s in-laws, it is also worth considering as we await Friday’s Handover anniversary celebrations in Hong Kong.
Five years ago, ahead of Carrie Lam’s inauguration as Chief Executive, who could have foreseen the seismic changes which would engulf our beloved city? Riot police and burning barricades, some 10,200 arrests, a tough new national security law and an electoral overhaul to ensure “patriots” are in charge. And that’s before we get to Covid-19.
The outcome, undeniably, is a deeply divided society. There are citizens who insist the “good old days” are gone while others welcome what they see as renewed stability and closer ties with the Mainland. For the former, it is tempting to view the ill-fated Jumbo Floating Restaurant as a symbol of our changing times. The iconic vessel – which hosted celebrities such as Queen Elizabeth II and Tom Cruise and featured in the James Bond movie The Man With the Golden Gun – is currently floating upside down in the South China Sea. Having accumulated losses of HK$100 million (US$12.7 million) in recent years, it capsized while being towed to Cambodia. Maritime authorities are now considering whether it can be scuttled or salvaged.
Carrie might sympathise with the Jumbo, her administration having been all at sea for much of the past three years. In the final weeks of her term, amid a flurry of photo-ops and fluffy media interviews, she’s been trying to put a positive spin on her – ahem – achievements. Despite hitting record low approval ratings, she’s “not ashamed” of her record and insists she’s faced “unprecedented” challenges. In an editorial this week, the South China Morning Post charitably describes her legacy as “mixed”.
Ditto Health Secretary Sophia Chan, who oversaw Hong Kong’s catastrophic response to the coronavirus fifth wave, during which over a million people were infected, more than 9,000 died and our city led the world in deaths per capita for a month. She is departing with defiance, deflecting criticism and thanking colleagues for “sparing no effort” in combating Covid. But the fallout continues. This week, University of Hong Kong microbiologist Ho Pak-leung has retracted his statement criticising her “slow” pandemic response, having highlighted how other governments’ efforts were led by doctors while Sophia has a background in nursing. Cue inevitable reaction from 22 nursing schools and groups, who demanded an apology for the perceived insult to their profession. Amid the ongoing madness, revisionism and lack of accountability, Dr David Owens and Professor Ben Cowling continue to be the voices of sanity. Their latest podcast is, as usual, recommended listening.
And so to Friday, with security in Hong Kong ramped up ahead of President Xi Jinping’s expected visit to mark 25 years since our city’s return to Mainland rule and to oversee John Lee’s inauguration as our new Chief Executive. A massive police operation is underway to set up a two-layer “security zone” around the Convention and Exhibition Centre in Wanchai, where most of the celebrations will take place. We are told drones will be barred from flying anywhere in the city.
Authorities are also strictly limiting media coverage of the anniversary events. News organisations which received invitations are restricted to sending a single representative while at least 10 outlets have been denied access completely. The government’s Information Services Department insists it is “striking a balance” between the media’s needs and security requirements. The Hong Kong Journalists Association has expressed its deep regret.
Of course, the precautions extend to fully implementing Hong Kong’s zero Covid health strategy. Hence, some 3,000 guests and staff are being placed in hotel quarantine under “closed loop” arrangements. This includes Carrie and her ministers, who are confined to the Grand Hyatt and Renaissance Harbour View hotels adjacent to the Convention and Exhibition Centre.
At last, it seems, our leaders are getting a taste of their own quarantine medicine, albeit in five-star luxury and only for a couple of days. Compare and contrast with the three weeks in a stuffy shoebox-sized room that thousands of ordinary citizens endured at the height of the pandemic. Incoming Health Secretary Lo Chung-mau says he is considering cutting hotel quarantine – currently a minimum of one week – to five days, with another two to be spent in home isolation. Whoopie-doo! Meanwhile, in the normal world, I’m about to catch the Eurostar train to London with nary a quarantine regulation, health certificate, Covid test or mask in sight.
Which brings us back to our old friend Eugène Ionesco. His one-act “antiplay” La Cantatrice Chauve (The Bald Soprano) – in which two couples conduct meaningless conversations that eventually deteriorate into babbling – is considered a seminal part of a dramatic revolution in the 1950s. The name of this movement also accurately describes Hong Kong’s ongoing public health policy. That’s right, my literary chums, the Theatre of the Absurd.
Stay safe and well, everybody!
Boase Cohen & Collins