19 November 2020
China v. Virus
Victory for Beijing.
By Neil Tidmarsh
International incident of the week – South Korean K-pop girl band ‘Blackpink’ cuddles baby panda – China outraged!
China angrily reminded South Korea that the four pop-singers’ close contact with the cub broke strict social distancing rules for giant pandas. Health regulations designed to guard the endangered species from deadly viruses specify that only keepers or vets are allowed to handle pandas. Common infections carried by cats and dogs – such as the canine distemper virus – can prove fatal for pandas, and the girls of Blackpink do indeed have pet cats and dogs, frequently posting pictures of them on-line.
The encounter was part of a forthcoming reality tv show and the band had posted footage of it on YouTube. But it prompted thousands of complaints, viewed by millions, on the Chinese social media site Weibo. Blackpink’s agency decided to remove the clip (China is a massive and important market for K-pop), but pointed out that the band members were fully kitted out in PPE and had sanitised their shoes and hands. The tv show was cancelled.
The three-month-old panda cub, called Fu Bao, belongs to China, of course, even though he was born in the Everland Resort zoo in South Korea. Beijing only leases (never gives) pandas to foreign zoos and any off-spring automatically becomes Chinese property.
China’s sensitivity to the possibility of dangerous viral infection is understandable given its recent experience at the forefront of a deadly outbreak. The appearance of the virus last year initially threatened to turn the country upside down, but vigorous and thorough action since then appears to have held the infection in check, and further measures this week – the removal of four opposition MPs from Hong Kong’s legislative assembly – suggest that Beijing is willing to do whatever it takes to stamp it out altogether.
The ‘freedom and democracy’ virus originated in the West, according to some controversial claims, and from its first appearance in Hong Kong the Chinese authorities were determined to prevent its spread to the mainland. The symptoms include a demand for democratic politics, civil liberties, human rights and the rule of law. Infection would have had calamitous consequences for Beijing if left unchecked, as recent developments in the country where the disease is firmly established – the USA – show only too clearly. There, the dangerous practice of universal suffrage, of “government of the people, by the people, for the people”, has just seen a new president chosen by popular vote; what on earth would the effect be if such a reckless exercise took hold in China, where a president for life was imposed on the people only a year or two ago?
The authorities’ first measures to combat the outbreak – aggressive action by the police and, allegedly, by hired criminal thugs – were heavy-handed and only aggravated the infection, provoking a violent physiological reaction which resulted in the virus mutating into a more militant form, manifested in ever-larger demonstrations, angrier crowds and even an invasion of the parliament building.
But since then, the timely appearance and antiseptic and prophylactic qualities of something called Covid-19 have effectively contained and even eliminated such open manifestations, as it happens, and the authorities have followed through with a more subtle but powerful approach. The new national security laws imposed on Hong Kong by Beijing last June have given the authorities all the weapons they need to fight the virus. They can now take appropriately robust action against any ordinary citizen showing the slightest hint of a symptom of infection. And this week they showed that they’re prepared to extend that action to any infected official as well.
Hong Kong’s parliament, the legislative council, has always had a small but significant window of vulnerability to infection, in spite of measures taken after the hand-over to China in 1997. Although half of the MPs in the 70-seat parliament are effectively appointed by Beijing, half are elected. And although Beijing does its best to vet the candidates and control elections, over half of the elected MPs have shown symptoms of infection by forming a pro-democracy opposition.
Hong Kong’s chief executive agreed to allow the four most severe cases to remain in parliament until the next election (now due but postponed until next year, thanks to the afore-mentioned antiseptic Covid-19’s prophylactic properties) when they wouldn’t be allowed to stand for re-election. But Beijing over-ruled the agreement and demanded that they should be expelled immediately. And so they were. And, what’s more, all the other infected MPs – 15 in number – decided to go with them. So, at a stroke, the parliament has been deep-cleaned, purged of the highly-infectious and dangerous ‘freedom and democracy’ virus.
In Hong Kong, at least, the new normal is now the old normal – China’s age-old normal.
No wonder Blackpink’s close encounter with the panda cub Fu Bao caused such a fuss – Beijing is terrified that China will catch something from the West, terrified that something might disrupt that age-old normal. Decades of panda diplomacy have sought to blow a smoke-screen over the true nature of that normal. But now we know that those pandas aren’t there for cuddling. The smoke screen is wearing thin and the emerging view is a rather chilly one.