Nosferatu in hong kong

Life in times of sars – a year ago, hong kong celebrated the victory over the lung disease, but its political and economic consequences are still being felt today

In the west, sars was hastily stylized as the new plague of the century. In hong kong, the outbreak site of the disease, the health problems were quickly under control. Doch sars hat politik und kultur des stadtstaats nachhaltig verandert. A heated, nervous mood characterizes the climate of the city, especially about its political fate there are again heated arguments.

Nosferatu in hongkong

The mask as protection became the uniform during the epidemic

It rained on that friday evening, as it often did in hong kong in the spring of 2003, during the rainy season. But only auberlich was the 13. June 2003 a day like any other in the port city of. Because almost exactly one year ago, the news agencies of the city-state reported the first day without a new sars case and at the same time the first day without a sars death in hong kong.

It was just a coincidence, but for a long time no coincidence has been so fortunate: on the same evening, the "hong kong science museum" the goethe-institut opened its show there of the rough berlinale retrospective of the work of f.W. Murnau. There one saw then in its silent movie classic nosferatu: a symphony of greed the rats massively and ominously crawl from the ship of the vampire, and carry a deadly plague into the port city of bremen. Murnau’s work, gloomy german expressionism, which had normally interested mainly cineastes, suddenly hit the nerve of the present day. For weeks the films were successfully shown in the cinemas. Like little else, they fit into the latent sense of crisis of the city-state.

The "new plague"

It had all started about three months earlier. In march 2003 one had heard for the first time of the "severe acute respiratory syndrome", referred to in the future as sars, is one of the most. In amoy gardens, one of those typical many-story-high, courtyard-interlocked apartment blocks, several hundred people were hospitalized with similar symptoms within a few days, and 42 of them died in the next few weeks. The highly contagious lung disease hit hong kong hard, especially economically. The hong kong authorities quickly had the health situation under control – a total of only 1755 people were infected by the disease, 296 of them, mostly elderly, poorly nourished people, died – in a population of around 10 million, a number easily exceeded by any winter flu.

But in the meantime, there had also been cases of illness in the people’s republic, and even in canada – where ten percent of the population is now of chinese origin – there were individual cases of illness. Thus, in the west, where every apocalyptic scenario is greeted with particular eagerness, sars was prematurely stylized as the plague of the century, the "new plague" high.

The hysteria of the uninformed western public, combined with the beijing government’s litigious information policy, which was counterproductive in its mixture of hecticness and secrecy, led in the short term to an almost complete collapse of tourist and business travel, regardless of all the facts. In april, 65 and in may even 68 percent fewer guests came to hong kong than in the same months of the previous year.

Wearing masks as a political symbol

For the city, this was a shock that, after a brief depression, brought the technocrats to the top of their game. From on high, the metropolis was given a new hygiene consciousness. Sars hotlines were set up, various advertising campaigns for more cleanliness were launched, the already high penalty for "spit on the straw" to the equivalent of 170 euros (1500 hong kong dollars, previously 600).

Nosferatu in hong Kong

Coronavrius isolated from a sars patient by the institute of microbiology of the university of hong kong

Money for health measures was raised through free sars campaigns by artists, such as tv commercials by well-known film directors, which are now also distributed on dvd. All the stars of hong kong cinema, from andy lau to tony leung, took part in the film and, of course, waived their fees.

Wearing a respirator became a political symbol. Within a few days after the epidemic became known, the street scene was already dominated by people wearing white masks over their mouths and noses. Politicians, business leaders and lobbyists love to be filmed by local television while buying or putting on the masks, and they also wore them in public appearances to great effect. Even individual "homestories" were filmed, in which concerned fathers with public notoriety urge their children to wash their hands, explain the use of masks to them, the housewife and the staff. Those who did not do all this, or even in time, got to feel the people’s wrath. For example, tung chee-hwa, the beijing-appointed "chief executive", who was among those who downplayed the disease long after it was clear how badly it was affecting hong kong.

The – from a pragmatic point of view – not harmful, but also not absolutely necessary mask had in this way gained fundamental importance. It had become a metaphorical expression of hong kong’s bourgeois virtue, a symbol of the unconditional will not to let the disease get them down, a means of showing the world that hong kong is still strong, splendid and safe – and also a symbol of doing things differently and better than the beijing central government.

"Two systems"

The sars outbreak was only the latest high point in what seems to hong kongers to be a rare streak of bad luck. For in the seven years under chinese rule since the transition from british to chinese rule on 1. July 1997 hong kong stumbled from one crisis to the next. A few months after the takeover, the asian financial crisis broke out. Hong kong’s borsen square was hit harder by it than many of its neighbors. At the same time, billions of dollars of investment built nearby shanghai into the new metropolis of southeast asia. Unemployment rose, and the real estate market collapsed.

Politically, the people’s republic and the city-state had been closely intertwined for many years before the transfer of power in 1997. The formula negotiated with great britain "one nation, two systems" (one country, two systems), which guarantees hong kong the formal existence of its civil liberties until 2046, soon turned out to be lip service. In practice, this means that citizens from mainland china can still only enter hong kong with special permission, that feature films are often released in two versions or are only shown in hong kong, that hong kong’s legal system is gradually being hollowed out to suit beijing’s interests. Already in the autumn of 2002, a new, extremely sharp "security law" that after protests quickly disappeared again – a trial balloon.

And a very typical tactic of the central government: they enact a harsh tightening of the law. If there is resistance, this will be withdrawn and "as a concession to the will of the people" presented a milder version, but still a draconian tightening compared to the original condition.

But then sars intervened. In the weeks before, the hong kong government had already shown itself to be inept and tactically unwise. In the midst of the economic crisis, tung chee-hwa cut the city’s social spending, but at the same time tried not to antagonize the city-state’s economic leaders. And when the lung disease began to rage, he reacted late. When beijing appointed the hong kong shipowner as head of the ex-colony’s government in 1997, it was calculated that an established businessman would be the best advocate for beijing’s interests. This expectation soon turned out to be a misconception.

In june, just as the health crisis seemed to be over, tung’s government, at beijing’s instigation, released its plans for a new "security law", the "treason, sedition, subversion and the theft of state secrets" criminalized. This was particularly true "unauthorized information". The chinese leadership wanted to prevent hong kong from becoming a base for opposition forces, which it has in fact been since 1989 at the latest.

At that time, the beijing student strikes were also coordinated from hong kong, and the latest news was relayed to western media representatives before the protests were submerged in the bloody tiananmen square massacre. Ware the pas passed through unopposed, had every political critic arrested for "subversion" or "betrayal of state secrets" in the people’s republic, thousands of people end up in camps and prisons every year in this way.

"One nation"

In a mood already irritated by sars and the economic crisis that has become even more acute in its wake, the latest legislative proposal was just the spark that had been missing to ignite the explosive mixture.

Above all, the government leader’s unwise tactics and arrogance have caused him to lose the sympathy of even those sections of the population who are not unfriendly to beijing and had never previously thought of getting involved in politics. Now there were mass protests. 500.000 people went to the polls on 1. On july 1, 2003, the sixth anniversary of the change of sovereignty, people took to the streets in support of democracy and against the curtailment of civil liberties, demonstrating not only against the bill and tung chee-hwa’s government, but against any form of beijing interference in hong kong’s affairs.

Some of the demonstrators demanded a direct election of the "chief executives", which until then had been determined by an electoral body. Tung gave in. Two of its ministers resigned. But this reaction came too late. In the november district elections, the pro-beijing camp suffered a heavy defeat. In the spring, the mood heated up further when the agreement negotiated with the british in 1997 was signed "basic law", the relatively liberal basic law of hong kong was surprisingly questioned by beijing.

For while there is no ambiguity here about the "final destination" although there is no talk of a free election of all members of parliament, the beijing people’s congress in march suddenly began to "interpretation" of the "basic law". Other voices also pointed out that in the formula "one nation, two systems" the first half is the more important. Representatives of the democrats in hong kong now saw the danger of an end to hong kong autonomy. "Hong kong people have been deprived of their rights", criticized law yuk-kai, director of the human rights group human rights monitor. This fall, hong kong will elect its new parliament, this time allowing 30 of 60 deputies to be directly elected.

The power of bamboo

Economically, sars seems to be over. Real estate prices are rising again, to approx. 6 percent economic growth forecast for 2004 (2003: 3.3 percent). But despite the economic recovery, the debate continues, and the political uncertainty of last year remains to this day. On the anniversary of the bloody suppression of china’s democracy movement 15 years ago, 82.000 people gathered in hong kong’s victoria park to commemorate the chinese opposition.

They also unequivocally warned that the principle of "one nation, two systems" threatens to fail. If this were the case, it would have significance beyond hong kong, china’s western gateway. The 1997 transition was intended as a model to bring about reunification with taiwan in the long term.

After strong anti-chinese protests during the taiwanese parliamentary elections in the spring, beijing’s one-china policy is now threatening to suffer a serious setback at the political level, beyond all the approaches in everyday life and in private life.

A popular behavioral metaphor in hong kong also fits perfectly here: the port city has always seen itself as flexible and unyielding as bamboo: "the bamboo bends low to the ground in the storms, gathering the necessary energy to resist." explains p k leung, a literary scholar at hong kong university. This pattern, however, applies not only to hong kong’s but also to beijing’s politics.

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