Hong Kong has long been haunted by the thought of its future. Many of its citizens worry that it will become just another mainland Chinese city. This fear is often voiced as though to ward it off. But it is also spoken of as if it is already a reality. Beijing’s decision to intervene is an aggressive assertion that in the name of “One Country,” it can redefine “Two Systems.” What once worked by seeming to accommodate a spectrum of views now appears more like a fundamental contradiction. The space for different readings of what the coexistence of Hong Kong and mainland China means is contracting.
The coronavirus is imagined in the media, and in some people’s minds, as a disease that comes from meat hung outside, from exotic animals caged, from people willing to eat things that they shouldn’t. Never mind that the original vector is still unclear. Some kinds of criticism become a way of affirming a superior civilization, from a far-away land where epidemics could never happen. Covid-19 has thus mutated into a matter of image and character. The Chinese face has become a way of wearing disease.
There is the online reality, the reality portrayed by state media, and the reality I’m living in Shiyan, in the same province as Wuhan, the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak. We may be seven hours’ drive away from Wuhan, but this city, too, is on lockdown. On the seventh day after the quarantine began, a university classmate called my friend Ningning, with whose family I’m staying, and told her about another version of reality: hospitals do not have enough beds for the infected in Wuhan, she said. They go home, they die, they never enter the official count as they were not diagnosed.