The Slatest

Strongman Medicine: China Cracks Down on Hong Kong Under Cover of COVID

Xi Jinping wearing a mask and waving to someone above, next to a clenched fist in a latex glove.
Chinese President Xi Jinping greets residents in Wuhan on March 10. Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photo by Pang Xinglei/Xinhua/Reuters.

Welcome to Strongman Medicine, a weekly column looking at how governments around the world are taking advantage of the pandemic for censorship, surveillance, and repression. Slate is making its coronavirus coverage free for all readers. Subscribe to support our journalism. Start your free trial.

U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres warned this week that “against the background of rising ethno-nationalism, populism, authoritarianism, and a pushback against human rights in some countries, the crisis can provide a pretext to adopt repressive measures for purposes unrelated to the pandemic.” That was certainly the case this week.

Finishing the Job in Hong Kong

Before the virus, the biggest international news story involving China was the months of mass protests sparked by Beijing’s attempts to meddle with Hong Kong’s independent judiciary. Now, protesters have been forced off the streets by the coronavirus. The authorities appear to be taking advantage of this moment to carry out the kind of brutal crackdown they avoided when the protests were under global scrutiny.

Fifteen high-profile activists were arrested this week in what the New York Times calls Hong Kong’s “biggest roundup of prominent opposition figures in recent memory.” The activists, who included opposition lawmakers, lawyers, and a maverick media tycoon, were arrested on charges of taking part in unauthorized gatherings. The move comes amid increasing pressure from Beijing on the independence of the semi-autonomous city-state’s judges and may portend a broader crackdown. Beijing’s top official in Hong Kong has also called for the city to revisit a controversial national security law that would prohibit “any act of treason, secession, sedition, subversion” against the Chinese government. The law was previously shelved in 2003 after it sparked mass protests. Hong Kong opposition leaders hope to be able to get people back out into the streets by this summer for the one-year anniversary of the most recent protests. But that gives the authorities a lot of time to erode Hong Kong’s independence without the kind of pushback they normally expect.

Hong Kong isn’t the only place in the region where China is stepping up the pressure. Amid tensions over its handling of the virus outbreak, China has also stepped up the number and size of its military drills around Taiwan.

Europe Losing Hearts and Minds in Serbia

Serbia provides a telling example of how China and Russia are pushing to their expand global influence in the coronavirus era—and how Western democracies are losing theirs. Before the pandemic, President Aleksandar Vucic’s government had been taking steps to neuter independent media and undermine the rule of law, but EU leaders were often reluctant to criticize Serbia—a candidate for membership in the union—for fear of it falling into Moscow’s or Beijing’s orbit. The coronavirus may have tipped that balance decisively.

The ball was set in motion when European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announced on March 15 that the EU would be limiting the export of medical equipment outside the bloc. Vucic reacted furiously, saying in a televised speech to the nation, “European solidarity does not exist. It was a fairy tale. I have sent a special letter to the only ones who can help. That is China.” Soon after, China began sending aid as well as experts who are reportedly now directing much of the government’s coronavirus response.

Serbia also received help from Russia, which has sent medical aid throughout the world in the midst of this crisis in what the newspaper Novaya Gazeta calls “the diplomacy of protective masks”—even as its own outbreak has put strain on its medical system. Russia analyst Paul Goble notes that “Moscow’s assistance to Serbia has been controlled from the start by the military, and Russian soldiers have been integrated into Serbian operations against the pandemic. Once the coronavirus threat eases, it seems likely the Russian military presence will nonetheless remain.”

Meanwhile, Serbia has indefinitely postponed general elections that had been planned for April 26, so it’s unclear when voters will have a chance to weigh in on these developments.

Vietnam Quietly Forced Facebook to Censor Content

Vietnam has gotten less attention than other East Asian nations like South Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore, but its coronavirus response has been similarly effective. With aggressive quarantine policies, a rigorous tracing program, and an impressive number of tests, Vietnam has had only 268 confirmed cases of the virus despite disadvantages including a border with China and dense cities.

As David Hutt notes in Foreign Policy, the country’s normally very repressive Communist government has also showed an unexpected degree of openness in its response, providing frequent public briefings and timely information to the public. But that openness only goes so far: This week, Reuters reported that starting in mid-February, Vietnam took Facebook’s local servers offline, slowing traffic on the site to a crawl, until the company agreed to “restrict access to content which it has deemed to be illegal.” The server shutdown began in mid-February and lasted until early April, when concerns about the coronavirus were spreading.

“No End in Sight” for the Philippines

President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines has, for weeks now, taken advantage of the crisis to entrench his own power and condone human rights violations. He has warned that anyone who violates social distancing regulations could be shot.

This week, he threatened to use the military to enforce a martial law–style lockdown. “I don’t like it, but it’s necessary if the country will suffer because you have no discipline,” he told the public, also vowing to “identify Filipinos who have done nothing [but] criticize and find fault” with the government’s response. He said there is currently “no end in sight” for the lockdown on the country’s main island of Luzon. A leaked memo from the country’s air force this week ordered personnel to prepare for an expanded military role in the lockdown.

Police in the Philippines have cited more than 133,000 citizens for violating the quarantine and filed charges against 30,000 of them. (Rights groups say the country’s homeless have been disproportionately targeted.) Human rights considerations aside, mass arrests would risk creating a new health crisis: A prison in Cebu City has become the site of a major new outbreak with 123 inmates infected in what’s already one of the world’s most overcrowded prisons.