Anti-government protesters wearing masks attend a protest in central Hong Kong, China October 5, 2019. REUTERS/Jorge Silva

Opinion – Social Distrust in Hong Kong

The anti-mask legislation implemented by the Hong Kong government through the utilization of the Emergency Regulations Ordinance on October 4 triggered a serious debate, immediate riots and numerous conspiracy theories, illustrating profound distrust in the society of Hong Kong.

The law intends to curb the ongoing riots and social unrests, but critics of the government have argued that the law bypassed the Legislative Council and they questioned its constitutionality.

The government responded by saying that the legislature would be able to scrutinize the legislation. Still, some democrats were unhappy and challenged the constitutionality of the legislation. The court did not grant any interim injunction, but it would review the legislation later. The entire debate illustrates the controversial nature of the anti-mask legislation in Hong Kong.

Some critics of the government said that the anti-mask law should have been introduced in August immediately after its feasibility was studied. Yet, the government decided not to implement it until after violence occurred on October 1. 

Other critics believed that the anti-mask law would stimulate more protests and riots. Nevertheless, the government said that the riots on the night of October 4 and the morning of October 5 were anticipated, and it believes that social stability would be restored in the long run.

If the anti-mask law appears to be a “hard-line” measure from the government, then a correspondingly “soft-line” measure could have been simultaneously introduced, like the establishment of a reconciliation committee as proposed by not only critics but also a few pro-government elites.

Such a reconciliation committee, if established, could perhaps have ameliorated the relations between protestors and police, especially after the Yuen Long terror on July 21. 

After the enactment of the anti-mask law, a business elite openly called for the government to set up an independent commission of inquiry to investigate the entire disturbances, because he said that the scale of the protests appears to reduce after October 4.

Some pro-government elites believe that the Independent Police Complaints Council (IPCC), which has incorporated five international experts, has reformed its membership and this is already a big step forward. But the message of a reformed IPCC was not emphasized by the government.

If political marketing is urgently needed to help restore the image and legitimacy of the Hong Kong government, it is absent. The Hong Kong leadership is relatively weak vis-à-vis the protestors, who however have been sophisticated in utilizing the social media in their political agenda-setting, propaganda and mobilization.

When the anti-mask law was introduced, conspiracy theories grew rapidly in the territory, showing the deep mutual distrust between ordinary citizens and the government.

One conspiracy theory was that the anti-mask law would pave the way for the government to use the Emergency Regulations Ordinance again to impose capital control over the territory. Such a rumour might trigger immediate riots in which some protestors damaged the Mass Transit Railway stations and mainland-related banks.

According to the conspiracy theory, some people in Hong Kong might be frightened about the prospect of capital control, and it was in their vested interest to oppose the government’s move to invoke the Emergency Regulations Ordinance. There was no evidence to substantiate these claims, however.

Another conspiracy theory was that some “mainlanders” participated in the riots on the night of October 4 and the morning of October 5. Again, there was no evidence to prove these claims, but there were rumours about some protestors who spoke Putonghua and who participated in the riots.

Other conspiracy theories included protestors who “pretended” to be police officers to check vehicles on a road to see whether some drivers were police officers, and also protestors who received payment from mysterious persons.

In Hong Kong where conspiracy theories thrive, it demonstrates the persistence of serious social and political distrust between citizens and the government, and between the “blue” and “yellow” camps. The emergence of all kinds of conspiracy theories is detrimental to the authority and legitimacy of the government and to the cordial relations among citizens. 

Only time can repair the serious damage to the society and politics of Hong Kong. Endless political struggles and ideological polarization have made the Hong Kong society in lack of social and political trust.

Compounding the lack of trust is a growing sense of fatigue among many Hong Kong people about the ongoing protests. Although a public opinion survey claimed that 68 percent of the respondents opposed the anti-mask law, and that some 30 percent supported it, many citizens are tired of the protests because of the inconvenience and disruption to their daily transportation and even livelihood. 

Most importantly, political tolerance has declined in Hong Kong. Some citizens can argue easily with each other over different political views. Families can be divided because of political disputes. Some citizens have come to street brawls, leading to bodily harm and injuries.

Stickers and posters on the Lennon Walls became the target of removal by some members of the “blue” camp, while the “yellow” camp has showed resilience by putting back its stickers and posters onto the Lennon Walls.

A lecturer who voiced his “patriotic” views in support of a stronger implementation of the anti-mask law was surrounded and “verbally abused” by his students for five hours in a classroom, demonstrating not only the impact of his “provocative” public remarks but also the “strong” reactions from his students. 

In a nutshell, a recent tragedy of Hong Kong is that, with the implementation of the anti-mask law that aims at controlling social unrests, many citizens are continuing to argue and fight among themselves politically.

Sadly, social distrust and political intolerance have become prominent features of the entire debate over the extradition bill in Hong Kong from June to the present, necessitating a very long period of social and political recovery in the years to come.