HONG KONG April 2003
As the world-wide battle against the SARS virus continues, the Chinese – controlled administration in Hong Kong is showing its worst approval ratings ever in opinion polls with 61 per cent saying they are unhappy with the government. SARS has been traced to neighboring Guongdong province, but China has been accused of covering up the disease for months and Hong Kong has suffered more deaths per head of population than any other community in China.
Deep in the New Territories on the Kowloon peninsular, heading up towards the Chinese border – across which the SARS virus first struck – a family gathers in a government housing flat which is spotlessly clean and tiny. Mattresses are rolled up, computers pushed flat against the walls, a meal eaten and then the folding table collapsed to make room for our visit, only to be taken out again at night for a clattering game of Mahjong to ease the family’s grief.
‘You don’t know when. You don’t know why. You don’t know how,’ says Yuen Sheung Fun, who has so far escaped the disease. She is masked, as we all are, terrified of each other’s breath. ‘You only know it kills,’ she says.
Next to her, her younger brother, Kin Shing, holds a photograph of their parents – who died within a day of each other wracked with SARS. Kin Shing also had it – father and son in the same hospital ward. With a high fever and hardly able to breathe, Kin Shing managed to make it to his father’s bedside. ‘He couldn’t speak,’ he says. ‘But he could understand that I was asking him to be at peace with himself. He looked at me and I knew from his expression that he didn’t want to die, he didn’t want to leave us.’ 1. 20
Dying from SARS is like taking your last gasps while drowning.
Nothing as devastating has hit Hong Kong for generations. The cavernous new airport echoes with emptiness. I was the only guest at breakfast in my hotel. The receptionist handed out face masks along with room keys. Rickshaws stand abandoned at the Star Ferry because no tourists are there to sample the symbols of a bygone age. A trade fair at the convention centre is deserted.
And an opinion poll says that the Chinese-appointed Chief Executive, Tung Chee Wah, is unpopular – in fact Hong Kong people have never mistrusted their government more.
SARS is proving to be the turning point in the way Hong Kong people view their rulers in Beijing and themselves. China covered up the SARS disaster until it was too late and the epidemic had spread. That lie has cut deep.
Trade is Hong Kong’s life blood. That’s what this place is all about. The government’s job make Hong Kong trade friendly. It’s what the British are seen to have done well.
Yet as soon as Beijing took over, demons have set in worse than ever before, worse than the refugees who flooded across in 1949 when Mao Tse-tung took power; worse than the riots against British colonial rule during Mao’s Cultural Revolution; worse than the waves of illegal immigrants and Vietnamese boat people, the stock market crashes and typhoons, and the hand-over to China in 1997 when Hong Kong became the only place in recent times that didn’t even get a chance at self-determination.
Hong Kong people have never taken to the barricades. There has been no intifada or suicide bombs. They have emigrated, if they could, sending a nephew to Canada or an uncle to Australia to start the process of family immigration in case China creates yet another apocalypse. They’ve never been allowed to determine their own future. Nor has there been a great sense of belonging. With its skyscrapers and glitter, Hong Kong still remains a place of transit built by refugees.
Outside the Legislative Council building, shopkeepers shout insults at the (mostly unelected) members as they step out of their gleaming limousines. Their businesses have been closed down by SARS – and they’ve had no government help.
I managed to extract the veteran opposition leader, Emily Lau, from inside the building. ‘It’s time for Tung Chee Wah, to go,’ she says bluntly, pointing to the protesters. ‘Either more of these demonstrations will force him out, or he should get the message, pack his bags and leave.’
In bustling Wanchai, as people stream out of the Mass Transit Railway, they are unusually willing to talk.
‘It’s terrible,’ said one woman peeling off her mask. ‘China didn’t tell the truth, and now we are suffering.’
‘It’s dangerous,’ said a student. ‘Because of them. How can we ever trust them.’
And perhaps a lawyer summed it up best. ‘Under the present system, we can’t get him out,’ he says. ‘And that makes people angry. If Hong Kong is to move forward, it has to take charge of its own destiny.’
Perhaps China might listen. Better to have a more independent-minded but contented southern colony, than to battle against street protests and all the appalling images that might involve.