Wuhan virus fears become new source of unrest for battered Hong Kong

People argue with riot police inside the lobby of a residential building as residents protest against plans for an empty local housing estate to become a temporary quarantine camp in the Fanling district in Hong Kong on Jan 26, 2020. PHOTO: AFP

HONG KONG (BLOOMBERG) - The Hong Kong government halted work to use a housing estate as a possible coronavirus quarantine facility, after violent protests at the site showed outbreak fears becoming a new source of unrest for the city.

A few hundred protesters in surgical masks initially barricaded a road in the Fanling district to object to a proposal to use the unoccupied Fai Ming housing development as an emergency medical facility. Some said the site was too close to their homes, while others complained that approved applicants risked losing their flats in the estate should it be implemented.

Demonstrators blocked roads, built barricades with trash and paralysed traffic in Fanling near the facility, police said. Later, they damaged traffic lights and set fire to the lobby of one building by throwing petrol bombs, it said. Riot police were seen walking around the estate asking people to show their identities and inspecting their bags.

The incident saw Hong Kong's twin crises - political unrest and the threat of a viral outbreak in mainland China spreading across the border - converge in a striking echo of a similar period of anxiety about the city's future during the SARS scare 17 years ago. Both issues were charged with deep local mistrust of authorities.

At least 80 people have died in China from the coronavirus outbreak, state broadcaster China Central Television said Monday (Jan 27), up from just two fatalities a week ago. More than 2,000 cases have so far been confirmed, the vast majority of them in China.

On Saturday, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam upgraded the government's response against the coronavirus to the highest level and said the outbreak could extend the city's recession into 2020. Hong Kong has six confirmed infections as of Sunday.

Hong Kong has been on high alert regarding communicable diseases since the 2003 outbreak of SARS, which originated in China's Guangdong province in 2002 and ripped through the financial hub the following year. The virus infected about 2,000 people and killed nearly 300 in Hong Kong, crippling tourism and the real estate industries - dealing a major blow to the economy.

On Sunday, the government said in a statement that it would halt work to ready the Fai Ming Estate in Fanling as a possible quarantine site. Three other facilities were already prepared, it said.

"The government acknowledges and understands that there is concern among some residents in the North District of the requisition of Fai Ming Estate," it said in a statement. "Representatives of relevant government departments will attend North District Council meeting this Wednesday to explain and discuss on the issue.

Meanwhile, the government will cease the related preparation work in Fai Ming Estate." Hong Kong called off its largest marathon, which was scheduled to be held with events on Feb 8 and 9, further delaying the city's efforts to bounce back from political unrest that has forced the cancellation of numerous events. Other tourist-focused facilities have temporarily shut their gates, such as the Ocean Park, just two weeks after the government detailed plans to help the theme park through financial difficulty.

More than seven months of pro-democracy protests have battered the former British colony's economy, undermined its reputation for political stability and increased geopolitical tensions between the US and China. Beijing has governed Hong Kong since 1997 under a "one country, two systems" framework that preserves its freedom of expression, independent courts and capitalist financial system.

The demonstrations since June were ignited by a proposed law to allow extraditions to jurisdictions including mainland China. After a couple of months of demonstrations, the government withdrew the bill but the protesters' demands had broadened to include greater democracy and an independent inquiry into police conduct during the unrest.

Meanwhile, anti-government protests continued over the weekend. Police fired tear gas to disperse protesters who gathered in the crowded shopping hub of Mong Kok at the site of a 2016 protest that marked a violent turn by the city's pro-democracy movement. Demonstrators turned out even though organisers cancelled a rally initially planned for Sunday to mark the so-called Fishball Revolution to comply with a police ban.

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