The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion In Hong Kong, face masks are finally optional — but distrust remains

Pedestrians, many wearing protective face masks, in Hong Kong on March 1. (Billy H.C. Kwok/Bloomberg News)
5 min

HONG KONG — A funny thing has happened here in the two weeks since the government finally lifted its covid-era rule ordering everyone ages 2 and older to wear a face mask — or risk a hefty fine. The mandate had been in force for nearly 1,000 days.

And now? People are … still masking.

On crowded streets and subways, most Hong Kongers still cover their faces. Given the choice, and informed of the ongoing coronavirus threat, most people opt to mask up.

Whether to wear a face mask should have long ago become a matter of personal choice, dictated by one’s own assessment of risk and vulnerability to covid-19. But the pandemic coincided with a breakdown of trust between Hong Kong’s government and residents over the past few years. Government overreach has expanded, including under the guise of protecting public health. Face masks became the most visible symbol of a muzzled population.

Keith B. Richburg: What Hong Kong's spiffy marketing campaign for tourists can't disguise

Hong Kong’s draconian covid restrictions were installed in 2020, the same year Beijing imposed a far-reaching national security law intended to tame this restive, formerly free city by curbing speech. The pandemic gave local authorities a powerful weapon for controlling the population and stifling months of anti-government protests.

Citing covid, all demonstrations and protests were banned under a rule that limited “gatherings” to no more than two people (later relaxed to four). Conveniently, the rule was used to stop supporters from gathering outside when democracy activists and journalists were hauled into court over national security “violations.”

Meanwhile, “patriotic” large gatherings were allowed, as when people jammed the harbor front for flag-raising ceremonies marking the anniversary of the communist takeover of China, or to cheer on athletes in the Tokyo Olympics. The only notable arrest? A man was detained in 2021 for waving a colonial-era Hong Kong flag and encouraging people to boo the Chinese national anthem.

Covid quarantine requirements underscored the government’s lack of trust in people with their strictness and their loose links to scientific rationale. Covid checks were imposed on whole neighborhoods and apartment blocks, often based on a sewage sample or a single virus case. Anyone who tested positive was hauled off to makeshift quarantine centers with no avenue for appeal. Families were separated. Infants were taken from their mothers. When covid cases were spiraling, foreign consulates here warned their citizens that they might face forced quarantine and family separations.

Passengers flying into Hong Kong were subjected to a 21-day hotel quarantine, at their own expense, despite the fact that most covid cases were discovered within a few days. In 2021, a significant omicron outbreak was traced to someone who contracted the virus after being confined to a quarantine hotel.

An unvirtuous cycle soon reinforced itself: People were not trusted to isolate at home if they tested positive, so they were forced into government camps. As people stopped trusting the government, they ceased to report positive cases.

Another punitive rule intensified isolation. Airlines could be banned from flying here if five people — or 5 percent of a flight’s passengers — tested positive for covid on arrival. Never mind that international carriers required pre-departure virus checks. With airlines loath to risk having their already-strained flight crews undergo lengthy quarantines, many simply scrapped Hong Kong from their itineraries.

On March 6, United Airlines started its first daily nonstop flight to the United States since mid-2020. Pre-pandemic, there were 90 flights per month, with options each day to San Francisco, Chicago or Newark. Even if airlines ramp up operations, that volume of flights is not expected to return until the end of 2024.

The lack of trust cut both ways. Many people here stopped trusting the unelected government imposed by Beijing. Vaccines were freely available here from early in 2021, far earlier than most places in the region. But there was initial vaccine resistance as many people, particularly the elderly, feared the government was withholding information about possible side effects. The take up rate lagged, as incidents of someone falling ill or dying after getting jabbed made front-page headlines in local media.

Despite the draconian restrictions — the mask mandate, lengthy quarantines, airline suspensions, the ban on gatherings — all ostensibly to keep covid at bay, Hong Kong reported the world’s highest covid death rate in March 2022: A city of 7.6 million people suffered 13,466 covid deaths.

Fast-forward a year, and there are fledgling signs of pre-covid normality — both good and bad. A March 5 event marking the rights of women and laborers was abruptly called off hours before it was expected to begin. Police initially gave permission for the march on the condition that it “not be contrary to the interests of national security.” But authorities later warned organizers that “violent groups” might try to join the rally and that the organizers would be held responsible for any unrest.

In other words, the mask mandate is finally gone. But the fact that it lasted 945 days reflects how little the government trusts citizens since the 2019 social upheaval. And if people aren’t trusted to wear a face mask, they certainly can’t be trusted to vote the right way in a free and fair election.