The warning signs in Hong Kong

In 2017 I traveled to Hong Kong to do research for a paper about the pandemic risks posed by wet markets (marketplaces which sold and slaughtered live animals). I traveled to wet markets large and small, and took notes on their practices and clientele. I also interviewed public health experts and doctors about the territories system to control avian influenza in poultry.

Card in a Shenzhen hotel, which explains China’s internet restrictions to guests. Sorry for the bad lighting. Photo by Shawn Smallman

While in Hong Kong, I also traveled to Macau and Shenzhen. When I crossed into mainland China, I was struck by the extent to which information was restricted. It’s one thing to know that China has a separate digital ecosystem. It’s another to no longer be able to use Google Maps, and to know that there’s no point in even trying to use a VPN to connect with websites at home. When I arrived in Shenzhen, I found this card in my hotel. You couldn’t access your files in Google Drive, check Twitter, watch a YouTube video, or see your kids’ posts on Instagram. The Great Firewall of China is  both pervasive and efficient.

While I was in Hong Kong, I also had an opportunity to talk to someone whom I greatly respected. At one point in our discussion they asked me “Do people see what is happening here in Hong Kong? Are they following what is happening here?” I said that no, in my opinion most Americans did not. In the United States people were focused on the new presidency of Donald Trump. She/he seemed very disappointed by my answer, and asked the same question again with slightly different wording. I gave the same answer. In 2017, I don’t think most Americans -and perhaps most Europeans- were carefully following what was happening in Hong Kong. That would change over the next year and a half.

I’ve been thinking about that conversation today, because I’ve been reading an excellent New

List of blocked websites in China. Hotel card in Shenzhen. Photo by Shawn Smallman

York Times article (by Chris Buckley, Vivian Wang and Austin Ramzy) about how China established an authoritarian system in the former colony. The first thing struck me from the article was the picture at the top, in which workers installed China’s national emblem at the Metropark Hotel in Causeway Bay. According to the caption, this hotel had “become a Chinese security agency’s base of operations.” It was also where I had stayed during my time in Hong Kong.

I had chosen the Metropark because it was close to a subway stop. From there I could walk to a major wet market, or visit an excellent library after a short stroll. I have many memories of the hotel, which included coming downstairs one morning and being surprised to see that the windows were boarded and the glass doors were taped up. That was how I learned that a typhoon was about to arrive. Now that hotel is the base for a Chinese intelligence agency.

Poster at McGill University in Montreal, Canada.

I’ve written before about how China used digital tools to suppress Hong Kong’s democracy protesters. But the depth of the political change has been extreme. Last week Apple Daily closed, which likely registers the death of independent media in Hong Kong.

In the last year before the pandemic I was struck by how on different campuses (from McGill University in Canada to Portland State University in Oregon, US) students had created posters, signs and memorials about Hong Kong. The students care deeply about what has happened in Hong Kong, and the detention camps holding over a million Uighurs. China’s neighbors, such as the Philippines and Vietnam, are also carefully following the construction of the artificial islands in the South China Sea, and its maritime claims. 

I’m a Chinese language learner, who believes deeply in the values of cultural exchange. I’m grateful to the Chinese instructors who gave me my love for the language. I’m also a Taiwan Fellow. If COVID-19 permits, this fall I will be doing research in Taibei, Taiwan. I have two Taiwanese tutors, who support me as I struggle with to learn traditional characters and sentence patterns. Probably like everyone else following China’s rhetoric towards Taiwan, I worry deeply about its future, and what that means for my Taiwanese colleagues and teachers.

In 2017 I think that there was a certain faith (except in security circles) that for all its rhetoric, China wouldn’t violate the terms (one country, two systems) under which Britain returned the territory to China. Now I think that from Australia to Japan, people are watching events around the Taiwan Strait with a sense of unease. Will we see a maritime invasion of Taiwan, and political terror afterwards? It’s disturbing to imagine what the Chinese state might do to suppress Taiwan’s people and political system. After all, China’s leadership was willing to imprison a million Uighers, and impose an authoritarian system in Hong Kong. 

Recently, there’s been a heated debate about the possible origins of the COVID-19 pandemic. I have published a few peer-reviewed articles on conspiracy theories, such as conspiracy theories about Zika, the 2009 influenza pandemic, and the death of an Argentine prosecutor. I hate conspiracy theories because I think they change peoples’ behavior in dangerous ways. Why would you vaccinate yourself against COVID-19 if you think that the pandemic is caused by 5G? Conspiracy theories also reflect political polarization. In that sense, they can be a warning sign of a political system breaking down. I’ve probably posted more about conspiracy theories -and how to fight them- than any other topic on this blog.

Exactly what constitutes a conspiracy theory is always a judgement call. There are real conspiracies, such as the Watergate break-in. The question of whether the pandemic might have begun with a lab leak in Wuhan -in my opinion- was heavily politicized by President Trump’s rhetoric. Yet, I don’t think that the argument that a lab leak might have begun the pandemic is a conspiracy theory.

It’s also quite likely that the pandemic did begin in a wet market, which is why I was studying wet markets in 2017. Yet over the last several months there has been mounting evidence that  COVID-19 might have begun spreading accidentally from a government lab in Wuhan, China. The WHO report (which the WHO defines as the report of an independent commission) was poorly done, and did little to settle this question.

I believe that there are multiple lines of evidence that may shed light on this issue. I also think that some other nations than the United States might possibly have relevant information. For example, there are allegations that early in the pandemic Vietnam hacked China’s health ministry, as well as the Wuhan health ministry (see the references below). At this point, we don’t have enough evidence to make a fully informed judgement on the lab leak question. More information will become available in coming months. But China’s argument that the virus may have introduced to China from abroad through frozen food is unconvincing.

Bust and Plaque at the Fighting SARS memorial, Hong Kong

In 2003 China initially sought to cover up SARS. In the aftermath of that earlier pandemic, many commentators suggested that China would be more transparent with future outbreaks. Sadly, that doesn’t seem to have been the case. I recommend Zeynep Tufekci’s article in the New York Times for more information on the lab leak hypothesis.

The Chinese government has successfully imposed the mainland’s political authority over the free press and political system in Hong Kong. Apple Daily is gone. Other media sources will likely follow or be completely cowed. But this step has changed China’s relationship with Western countries. For example, recent polling data by the Lowy Institute on how Australians view China shows a dramatic reversal in the space of three years. I’ll miss Hong Kong with its vibrancy, culture and book stores.


“‎The Diplomat Podcast: Ep Making Sense of Vietnam’s Suspected COVID–19 Cyber Espionage on China – May 7, 2020,” May 7, 2020.

Stubbs, Jack, and Ralph Satter. “Vietnam-Linked Hackers Targeted Chinese Government over Coronavirus Response: Researchers.” Reuters, April 22, 2020.

Thayer, Carl. “Did Vietnamese Hackers Target the Chinese Government to Get Information on COVID-19?,” April 20, 2021.

Shawn Smallman, 2020

Street sign in Hong Kong. Photo by Shawn Smallman


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