Nearly overshadowed by the chaos in the US this week was a dramatic escalation of the crackdown on pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong.
Authorities arrested more than 50 pro-democracy figures in early morning raids under the territory’s six-month-old national security law. The opposition lawmakers, activists and lawyers were accused of subversion for holding primaries for pro-democracy candidates for Hong Kong elections.
They make political participation in Hong Kong not just futile but dangerous, and are likely to render the Legislative Council a rubber stamp along the lines of the National People’s Congress in Beijing, which has never challenged an initiative of China’s ruling party.
Britain’s foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, responded with outrage, saying China
deliberately misled the world about the true purpose of the national security law, which is being used to crush dissent and opposing political views.
Opposition politics now considered ‘subversion’
Those arrested were all linked to informal primaries convened by pro-democracy parties last year ahead of Legislative Council elections, which were ultimately postponed.
At the time, Beijing labelled the primaries “illegal” and Hong Kong authorities said they would investigate whether the opposition’s plan to win a legislative majority that could veto government initiatives violated the national security law. The law provides for penalties up to life imprisonment.
It is unsurprising Beijing views grassroots political organisation with suspicion. Its authoritarian political system precludes any challenge to the Communist Party’s rule.
In Hong Kong, only half of the legislature’s seats are elected by universal suffrage; the others are reserved for members of trades and industries. But it has still been possible for opposition figures to win election and exercise their rights to vote and, where numbers permit, veto actions.
The fact the Hong Kong authorities now classify such acts as “subversion of state power” confirms the national security law has redrawn Hong Kong’s constitutional landscape. Its enforcement is playing out according to the most pessimistic forecasts.
Steady erosion of rights
While Hongkongers nominally enjoy a wide range of rights under the Basic Law, the outline of which was negotiated with Britain before the handover in 1997, some have come under severe pressure following the passage of the security law. These include freedom of speech, assembly and now electoral rights.
A key point of contention has been the progression to full democracy promised in the Basic Law but repeatedly withheld by Beijing. Chinese authorities have persistently misinterpreted the idea of Hong Kong self-government as a challenge to central authority and territorial integrity.
After the 2014 Umbrella Movement, the Hong Kong government told young democracy advocates to take their cause off the streets and into politics. But after many did so with remarkable success, that door has now been slammed shut.
In addition to aggressively prosecuting pro-democracy protesters, the Beijing and Hong Kong governments have orchestrated the disqualification of many pro-democracy candidates and elected officials in recent years. This culminated in the arbitrary removal last November of four sitting legislators, which triggered the resignation of the 15 remaining opposition members.
Around two-thirds of those arrested this week were former legislators or current district councillors. Other prominent opposition figures and members of civil society groups were also targeted. Police also reportedly seized documents from media and polling organisations.
Benny Tai, a longtime opposition figure who was among those arrested, said:
Hong Kong has entered a cold winter, the wind is strong and cold.
Why the world hasn’t done more
With rights and freedoms diminishing under Beijing’s vast national security apparatus, the outlook for Hong Kong is indeed bleak.
Hong Kong’s judiciary has been a bulwark against executive overreach, but it has been criticised by all sides for its decisions in political cases.
Its jurisdiction over national security matters is also constrained: judges are vetted by the executive government and can only apply, not interpret, the law. Cases can also be transferred to mainland courts.
The retiring chief justice recently pleaded for Hong Kong’s judicial independence to be respected, but the government’s fallacious insistence that Hong Kong, like China, has no separation of powers is one of several causes for concern as the baton passes to a new top judge.
Beijing has learned the lessons of the Tiananmen Square crackdown and sensibly opted to bring Hong Kong to heel by gradually escalating the authoritarian use of the law, rather than a military crackdown.
This makes the likelihood of international intervention — always a dim prospect — practically negligible.
Western democracies have criticised the erosion of Hong Kong’s democratic principles and rule of law, and Hongkongers can expect easier pathways to residency in some of those countries, but China’s economic power will deter most governments from doing more.
This should not mask the fact that true political repression is taking place in Hong Kong. Key opposition figures have been vilified by pro-establishment media and harassed by law enforcement, leading many to flee overseas. Some have had their assets subsequently frozen by a vindictive government.
The Chinese government’s approach to Hong Kong is consistent with its more assertive approach internationally — it is aggressively pursuing its own interests without apparent regard for the reputational cost.
Once the international community understands how China plays the game, governments can formulate diplomatic and economic policies to deter bad conduct and protect their own national interests, along with the interests of others who fall within China’s sphere of influence.
However, such is China’s determination to crush dissent and opposition that anyone, anywhere in the world who advocates for such policies can be charged under Hong Kong’s national security law.
Of the 215 nations and territories that have reported COVID-19 cases, 120 have experienced clear second waves or late first waves that began in July or later. That’s according to the Worldometer global database, which sources data from national ministries of health and the World Health Organisation.
Of these 120, only six have definitively emerged from their second wave: Australia, South Korea, Japan, Hong Kong, Vietnam and Singapore. I am not including New Zealand, as the series of clusters that arose in Auckland in mid-August never evolved into a clear second wave.
Ultimately, Victoria has performed extremely well by international standards. Only Vietnam and Hong Kong have enjoyed comparable success in quashing the second wave. Victorians’ sacrifice during lockdown has left Australia well placed to sustain very low numbers of cases through the coming summer.
A grim global context
Any comparison between Australia and other countries takes place amid a grim global context. The worldwide tally of cumulative cases is adding one million new cases every three or four days. On Wednesday, of the 100 countries with the highest total reported cases, just seven reported fewer than 50 new cases: Australia, China, Nigeria, Singapore, Ivory Coast, Zambia and Senegal. The same day, France and the United Kingdom each reported more than 26,000 new cases, and 20 European countries posted all-time daily record numbers.
Europe and North America face enormous challenges to control their outbreaks as winter looms and pandemic fatigue sets in. But already there are signs of decisive measures including a national lockdown in Ireland — very similar to Melbourne’s — and night curfews in Paris, seven other French cities, Brussels, Athens and Rome. Their current struggles stand in stark contrast to Australia’s situation.
Israel’s second wave came early
Which countries offer the most instructive comparison with Australia? Let’s start with Israel, one of the first countries to experience a second wave far more severe than the first.
Israel was also a founding member of the long-forgotten First Movers Group, comprising Austria, Denmark, Norway, Greece, the Czech Republic, Israel, Singapore, Australia and New Zealand. Each member nation implemented restrictions early in the pandemic, and held a virtual summit in May to share tips about controlling the virus. Since then, every member except New Zealand has experienced a major second wave.
Israel’s second wave was largely caused by transmission among high school and middle school students, and an uncoordinated exit from the first lockdown. By the end of May, citizens were allowed to go to shopping centres and community gatherings, despite a growing resurgence of cases. During the Israeli summer there was minimal enforcement of face mask use, and moderate restrictions were reimposed on July 17.
Cases continued to surge, prompting a second lockdown introduced on September 18. This included restricting people’s movement to within 1km from their homes. The mishandling of the first wave had eroded public trust in the government, and morale was seemingly bleak during what was the first national lockdown in the world in response to a second wave. While cases have declined in the past few weeks the country has not yet emerged, with daily new case numbers still between 800 and 1,100.
National lockdowns not essential for success
Four of the five Asian countries that have emerged from their second wave demonstrate that lockdowns aren’t an all-or-nothing choice. There are intermediate options, but they only work if certain conditions are met. These include effective testing, contact tracing and isolation capacities; a culture of wearing masks and following public health directives; electronic contact tracing; and selective local restrictions such as closing bars, restaurants and places of worship.
Vietnam was one of the first countries to contain its first wave and did not record a single death until July. Measures included early border closures, aggressive testing and tracing, and enforced quarantine of all cases and their contacts. This may not be an option in less authoritarian countries. Vietnam did have a national lockdown for a two-week period in April.
Clear communication with the public was a crucial element of Vietnam’s response. The government used a range of creative ways to spread messages about symptoms, prevention and testing sites, including via state media outlets, social media, text messages and, famously, a viral song about the importance of handwashing.
After 99 days of zero daily cases, Vietnam’s first community transmission case was reported in Da Nang on July 25. It started with a man who tested positive without any travel history, and it’s still unclear how he contracted the virus.
By September 4, Vietnam’s health ministry had confirmed 632 new cases and 35 deaths. As during the first wave, blanket testing was conducted in Da Nang, transport in and out of the city was cancelled, and bars and restaurants closed. The same local measures were implemented in certain neighbourhoods in Hanoi when new cases were identified. The country has not reported any community transmission since early September.
Besides enforced quarantine, Japan, Hong Kong and South Korea have mostly followed the same strategy as Vietnam and haven’t imposed blanket lockdowns. After two months of near zero daily cases, South Korea experienced a series of spikes linked to bars, nightclubs and karaoke venues, with a major surge in August linked to a large church. The response has been characterised by robust decentralised testing, contact tracing and isolation, and a registration system at entertainment venues based on QR codes. However, the country is not yet out of the woods, reporting 50-90 cases a day.
Singapore is a very different case. It has by far the highest per capita number of cases in Asia. With a population of just 5.8 million, the country has reported 57,921 cases — more than twice the number of Australia (which has more than four times the population).
Between mid-April and mid-June, Singapore experienced a massive spike in cases mostly among overseas migrant workers. On June 19, the country eased restrictions opening restaurants and gyms. In the seven subsequent weeks leading up to August 8, Singapore reported 13,096 new cases or 267 per day. Cases have subsequently declined to single digits, comparable to Victoria.
A Hong Kong man who recovered from COVID-19 more than four months ago has reportedly been reinfected with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. This time he didn’t have any symptoms.
This is not necessarily unexpected, because very few natural infections generate an immune response that completely prevents reinfection. Instead, what generally happens after an infection is that the body’s immune response gradually declines over months after the infection is cleared.
Specialised immune cells in the body are tasked with remembering each particular infection, so if you get infected again your body quickly starts producing the relevant antibodies and other immune cells (called T cells) in large numbers. This helps clear the new infection more rapidly and effectively. So you can still get reinfected, but you’re more likely to have fewer symptoms or be asymptomatic.
This is what seems to have happened to the 33-year-old Hong Kong man at the centre of the latest reports. The first infection caused symptoms, which he reportedly suffered from for some time. But the second time around he was asymptomatic, presumably because his body effectively repelled the disease.
The same phenomenon has previously been shown in monkeys, with one experimental study showing reinfection with SARS-CoV-2 is possible, but that reinfection did not result in the development of disease.
However, we have to be careful about over-interpreting what we know about this case. This is just one person. Is he the exception or the rule? We don’t know yet for sure, and we have to wait for further research. Also, his case was announced via a press release, so we have to wait for the paper to be officially published to be able to properly scrutinise the data.
A different strain
There have been anecdotal reports of people being reinfected before, but many of these seem to be cases in which the initial infection simply persisted for a long time, or in which the person’s lungs were expelling dead virus.
But in this case, the virus isolated from the man’s two separate positive COVID-19 tests had slightly different genetic sequences. This suggests they had a different origin and are therefore different strains.
We must remember, however, it’s common for viruses to mutate. So it’s also possible we’ll need several different vaccines to account for multiple strains of the virus, like is often done with the flu vaccine.
What does this mean for our immune system?
The good news is this particular person’s immune system seems to have recognised the second infection, as shown by the fact his blood boosted antibodies against it. Despite the mutation, the man could still mount a good defence against the new strain.
Antibodies usually last in the blood for roughly 120 days following a stimulus such as natural infection with a virus or injection with a vaccine, though it varies depending on the disease. Both the B cells that produce antibodies, and the T cells that kill infected cells, also wane over time after the stimulus.
Vaccines can induce longer-lasting responses. But the key point is both natural infections and vaccines do generate memory B and T cells. So when the body comes in contact with the infection the second time, the memory cells respond rapidly and in high numbers. This can be so quick and strong that in some cases it can even result in “sterile protection”, effectively preventing the virus from infecting our cells. More commonly, there may be a small lag time for the immune system to respond fully, but in the end the virus is still unlikely to infect many cells.
He didn’t develop symptoms, but could he still pass it on?
At the moment it’s unclear if asymptomatic carriers can transmit infection. Indeed, there may be different types of asymptomatic carriers. Some asymptomatic people might transmit the virus, while others don’t. We don’t know why this is the case.
But based on our experience with other diseases, the higher the number of viral particles being spread from person to person, the higher the chance of infection. Therefore, asymptomatic carriers, who do not shed lots of virus through coughing or sneezing, should in theory have a lower risk of infecting others.
Does reinfection mean herd immunity is impossible?
Herd immunity is still possible if we get a successful vaccine, because vaccines can be more powerful and protective than the immunity conferred by being naturally infected with the virus. Some epidemiologists suggest at least 70% of a population needs to be immunised to achieve herd immunity.
What’s more, becoming reinfected does not mean the virus will necessarily be transmitted — it depends on the viral dose and the susceptibility of people around the infected person. If they are all immunised with a vaccine, we generate a ring of fire that can contain spread of the virus.
It’s also possible SARS-CoV-2 becomes an endemic virus, like many viruses circulating in the population. But as long as there are diagnostics, vaccines and treatments, we could continue functioning normally just as we do with influenza present in the population. Ultimately it’s about what level of risk society is willing to accept. And we may need to use infection control methods like masks and hand hygiene for some time.
Vasso Apostolopoulos, Professor of Immunology and Pro Vice-Chancellor, Research Partnerships, Victoria University; Magdalena Plebanski, Professor of Immunology, RMIT University, and Maja Husaric, Lecturer; MD, Victoria University
The arrest this week of pro-democracy media tycoon Jimmy Lai in Hong Kong reveals the repressive reality of the city’s new made-in-China national security law.
It also sends a sharp signal to the remaining independent media in the territory: watch your step, or you could be next.
Lai, his two sons and four top executives of the Next Digital media group were all arrested under the new law. On the same day, police raided the offices of Next’s flagship publication, Apple Daily, deploying over 200 officers to search the premises for almost nine hours.
China imposed the national security law in June, bypassing the local legislature and breaching the principle of non-interference in the city’s governance.
The new law established a comprehensive PRC-style national security regime overriding aspects of Hong Kong’s common law legal system.
The national security law is designed to make dissent all but impossible in Hong Kong, including in the city’s once-freewheeling but gradually diminished independent media.
What the new law means for journalists
Lai and the others were arrested under article 29 of the new law, which criminalises collusion with a foreign country or external elements to endanger national security.
Banned acts include collaborating with a foreign entity to impose sanctions on Hong Kong or China, seriously disrupting the making of laws or policies, or provoking hatred of the government among Hong Kong residents.
Although Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement is a grassroots, homegrown affair, Beijing has sought to portray it as the result of foreign meddling. Hong Kong’s last two leaders, Carrie Lam and CY Leung, both alleged foreign forces were behind the protests that took place during their terms.
Beijing has already signalled that collusion will be broadly interpreted under the law.
Police have not disclosed the specifics of Lai’s offences, but his July meeting with US Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is likely to be under the microscope, as is an opinion piece he wrote for The New York Times in May.
Lai’s status as an influential media owner and prominent pro-democracy activist has positioned him in Beijing’s crosshairs. He has been the target of extraordinary vitriol from mainland state media and was arrested by Hong Kong police in February and April on charges of participating in an illegal assembly.
Lai’s case is undoubtedly intended to serve as a warning — “killing the chicken to scare the monkey,“ to borrow a Chinese saying — and an inducement for the city’s journalists to self-censor, lest they fall foul of the new law.
For instance, an editorial calling for Hong Kong’s constitutionally guaranteed autonomy to be preserved could be interpreted by a zealous prosecutor as inciting secession under articles 20 and 21 of the law.
An uncertain future for independent media
Although self-censorship has long been a concern, Hong Kong has traditionally enjoyed a vibrant free press. In 2002, Reporters Without Borders ranked it 18th in its inaugural World Press Freedom Index.
However, by 2020, the city had plunged to 80th. (China, meanwhile, ranked 177th of 180 countries.) The application of the national security law in Hong Kong will no doubt see the territory’s ranking tumble even further.
Apple Daily’s days appear to be numbered. Similar fates could befall other outspoken independent media, like the crowd-funded Hong Kong Free Press, which launched in 2015 amid rising concerns over declining press freedoms in the city. This was around the same time the South China Morning Post, Hong Kong’s venerable English-language daily, was acquired by the mainland conglomerate Alibaba.
Over the years, much of Hong Kong’s media has been bought up by China-owned or -affiliated entities, some of which are ultimately controlled Beijing’s Liaison Office in Hong Kong. More than half of Hong Kong’s media owners are now members of political bodies on the mainland.
The public broadcaster Radio Television Hong Kong has remained editorially independent, but it is under review again, having recently fallen foul of the local regulator for criticising the police handling of pro-democracy protests in a manner that was
irresponsible, and could be regarded as a hate speech with the effect of inciting hatred against the police.
International media still operate in Hong Kong relatively unrestrained, but visa refusals for foreign journalists suggest this is changing.
In recent years, Financial Times editor Victor Mallet’s visa renewal was denied after he chaired a discussion with a pro-independence politician, and New York Times reporter Chris Buckley’s Hong Kong work permit was denied, without any specific reason, months after he was also kicked out of China.
The Times has moved some of its former China- and Hong Kong-based reporters to South Korea and Taiwan in response. However, foreign journalists who engage in critical reporting on China and Hong Kong could be in breach of the national security law regardless of where they are based, as the law applies extraterritorially and to non-Chinese citizens as well as nationals.
Speaking for the party’s will
China’s constitution purports to preserve freedom of expression. It has never met the promise of its terms. In 2016, President Xi Jinping told the country’s press,
all news media run by the party must work to speak for the party’s will and its propositions and protect the party’s authority and unity.
The guarantees of free speech and a free press under Hong Kong’s Basic Law are now on the same trajectory.
It is unlikely the media in Hong Kong will be nationalised to the extent it is on the mainland. Instead, Beijing is deploying a combination of acquisition, co-optation and intimidation to obtain its compliant silence.