As Hong Kong treads gingerly in the grip of the coronavirus outbreak, with most avoiding going out and office staff told to work from home, negative sentiments against one group of people are more pronounced than ever. The wariness of mainland Chinese comes against the backdrop of soaring numbers of infection across the border. As of Monday, more than 17,000 cases have been reported in mainland China, with over 360 deaths. Hong Kong recorded its 15th confirmed case on Sunday. Analysts said while it was understandable that people would want to isolate themselves from mainlanders to reduce risks of infection, in Hong Kong, the situation had been politicised by government opponents. Anti-mainland sentiments, simmering in recent years and brought to the fore in the ongoing protests sparked by the now-withdrawn extradition bill last June, have found new momentum amid the health crisis, seeding a fertile environment for full-blown xenophobia to take root in the city, some warned. Embattled city leader Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, who earlier announced partial border closures with the mainland, is under immense pressure to roll out a complete shutdown. But she has so far rejected calls for this, saying it would be discriminatory. “I hope that as the whole of society takes part in prevention of and fighting the disease, we can be tolerant ... rather than targeting or rejecting a particular group,” she said, citing the World Health Organisation’s position that draconian travel and trade restrictions were not necessary. Tian Feilong, an associate professor at Beihang University’s law school in Beijing, lashed out at policymakers in Hong Kong in a commentary published on mainland news website guancha.cn on Thursday. He said city officials had put their own interests above the country’s. “Hong Kong authorities are supposed to be accountable to both the city and Beijing, yet ... their logic has always been localist: ‘the burden is yours and the benefits are mine’,” he wrote. “They are good at transferring their burden and pressure to the central government, and fighting for benefits and advantages for the city.” Tian also said the localist mindset among Hong Kong people could stop the city from integrating with the new international order in which China was a major power. “In terms of values, Hong Kong and Taiwan have been followers of the United States and Japan, but they lack [Washington’s and Tokyo’s] vision and wisdom in exchanges with [mainland] China.” Hong Kong, however, is not alone in its instincts to distance itself from mainland Chinese. In Singapore, over Lunar New Year, online comments bordering on racism circulated about mainlanders’ propensity to eat “anything with four legs except the table”. The jokes soon grew into policy calls similar to Hong Kong’s, with a petition in the Lion City on January 26 garnering more than 110,000 signatures on change.org. On Friday, Singapore became the next country after North Korea to close its borders to all new visitors from the mainland. Hospital workers’ group cancels meeting with authority ahead of Monday strike In Hong Kong, calls for a similar move are ongoing, with various groups within the medical sector voting to go on strike on Saturday evening, piling pressure on the government to yield. Measures put into place so far include denial of entry to residents of Hubei, the province in which outbreak epicentre Wuhan city is located, health declaration forms for all incoming visitors, and an extension of the school break. ‘Avoiding Mandarin-speaking people’ But pan-democrats have called for more drastic moves, such as turning some of the barracks under the local garrison of the People’s Liberation Army into quarantine camps, rather than using newly built flats at Fai Ming public estate in the border town of Fanling. Staging a protest outside the government’s headquarters on Friday, Democratic Party chairman Wu Chi-wai said: “As the Lunar New Year holiday comes to an end, hundreds of thousands of Hong Kong people could be returning. Apart from using more holiday resorts as quarantine camps, Lam must talk to the State Council about borrowing barracks.” City’s largest quarantine site with 300 homes to be ready in one, two months Asked if empty or occupied barracks should be used, Democrat lawmaker Helena Wong Pik-wan said the government should discuss with Beijing about temporarily moving some PLA soldiers across the border first, to free up some facilities for quarantine. “We are not saying those [quarantined] people should stay in already occupied barracks. But Hong Kong is not that far from Shenzhen, and there is no urgent defensive need in Hong Kong, why can’t we consider that as one of the options?” she said. Lam had since abandoned plans to use the estate in Fanling as a potential quarantine facility, after a backlash during which radical protesters firebombed the lobbies of empty buildings there. On Saturday, news emerged that the 89-room Heritage Lodge in Lai Chi Kok would join three other facilities set up as quarantine centres – Lady MacLehose Holiday Village; Lei Yue Mun Park and Holiday Village; and Po Leung Kuk Jockey Club Pak Tam Chung Holiday Camp. In local universities, which have mostly suspended classes until March, Hubei students who have earlier returned from the mainland were designated quarantine floors in dormitories or hotels. But the move triggered a backlash among local student communities, with 15 residents’ associations of the University of Hong Kong petitioning president Zhang Xiang to suspend the arrangement, deeming it an infection risk. The animosity towards Hubei students in Hong Kong is palpable, as told to the Post by one at Lingnan University. She said some mainland students who stayed on the quarantine floors had their personal data and room numbers posted on social media. “They are calling on Hong Kong students to stay away from me. I feel helpless as I did nothing wrong,” she said. They are calling on Hong Kong students to stay away from me. I feel helpless as I did nothing wrong Hubei student from Lingnan University On local internet discussion channels such as Telegram and LIHKG, the chatter on fear of mainlanders has grown, but such paranoia is not limited to Hong Kong. On Tuesday, a Chinese man reportedly died from a heart attack outside a restaurant in Sydney, as bystanders were accused of refusing to help him over worries he may have been a coronavirus carrier. The news report triggered a heated discussion on the reddit-like LIHKG forum, with users suggesting that Australian passers-by made the right choice. “I would do the same in Hong Kong. I’ve actually been trying to avoid Mandarin-speaking people on the streets,” one wrote. ‘The shop is closing down if the border isn’t’ The contagion has only hardened Hong Kong’s sentiment against mainlanders, with anti-government protesters citing the crisis as justification for border closures. Since June last year, the city has been roiled by protests, which have morphed into a campaign against authorities and a call for universal suffrage. Amid months of civil unrest, protesters have decried what they see as Beijing’s encroachment on the city, with radicals showing their hatred of the central government by burning Chinese flags and vandalising shops and banks deemed to have mainland ties. The protests have led to more than 7,000 people arrested, with clashes between demonstrators and police often descending into violence as radicals hurl petrol bombs while officers fire tear gas in return. More than 10,000 rounds of rubber bullets, 2,000 beanbag rounds, 19 live rounds and 16,000 rounds of tear gas have been used. What happens when businesses are split by protests into ‘blue’ vs ‘yellow’? With the virus outbreak, some so-called yellow shops, or businesses owned by supporters of the movement, have barred people who speak Mandarin or who are from the mainland. Kwong Wing Catering, a pro-democracy chain of seven restaurants in Kowloon and Tsuen Wan, said on its Facebook page on Tuesday that it would no longer serve Mandarin-speaking customers, except “friends from Taiwan”. “We serve Hongkongers. Orders can only be made in Cantonese and English ... The shop is closing down if the border isn’t,” the statement said. The post drew mostly positive reactions and comments. By Friday it had attracted 7,100 user responses – with 6,200 showing “like” and more than 700 showing “love”. One of the most popular comments read: “That’s great! Real Hongkongers should support you.” But some internet users were upset, giving poor reviews on its page and describing the chain as “xenophobic fascists” and “discriminatory against their own people in the country”. Some political parties or activists are magnifying all kinds of threats that the mainland is posing to reinforce their separatist demands Lau Siu-kai, Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macau Studies Lau Siu-kai, vice-chairman of semi-official think tank the Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macau Studies, said all of these were evidence the virus outbreak had been politicised. “Some people have been seeing and handling it from a political perspective. It may not be the majority of the public, but it’s not a small minority,” he said. “It’s normal for people to be worried. But now the anti-government protests have been losing momentum, and some political parties or activists are magnifying all kinds of threats that the mainland is posing to reinforce their separatist demands.” Lau also said anti-mainland sentiment was weaker in 2003, when Hong Kong was hit by the severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) outbreak. He noted that the individual visit scheme was only launched after Sars, meaning that when the outbreak broke out, mainland travellers mainly arrived in tour groups and they were much fewer in number. “Also, after the 1997 handover, Beijing was relatively hands-off on Hong Kong issues, so Hongkongers’ anger was mainly targeted towards the city’s government,” he said. Lau added that while some had criticised Guangdong authorities in 2003 for covering up the Sars outbreak before it spread to Hong Kong, it was only a relatively minor issue. Baptist University associate vice-president Yeung Chi-kong, also a public affairs commentator, said Hong Kong’s response to the outbreak highlighted the people’s anti-mainland sentiment and their lack of trust in the government. “The outbreak should ideally drive the people and the government towards a new-found unity ... But the campaign has already been politicised in the early days of the fight against the virus,” he said. Hong Kong ‘set for more measures’ on residents crossing border But political scientist Dr Edmund Cheng Wai of City University said anti-mainland sentiment was only a side issue. “The core issue has to do with Lam’s government. Even at the start of the outbreak, medical experts had proposed taking a more proactive approach,” he said. “If officials were more professional and responsive, the people’s discontent would not be this strong. In 2003, even the medical sector and civil society were more supportive of the government. But now the situation has changed.” The Democratic Party’s Wu said it was ridiculous to suggest that pan-democrats had put political goals over health concerns. “We, together with medical professionals, are suggesting border closure and quarantine measures just because we can only handle a limited war. We cannot cater for unlimited needs,” he said. “But Lam only understands our demands from a political point of view, and suggested it was already benevolent of Beijing to stop issuing new visas [to mainlanders wanting to come to Hong Kong] ... She is the one politicising the issue the most.” Wu also proposed that quarantine camps be built on a 60-hectare site to the east of Hong Kong Disneyland Resort on Lantau Island, which is currently reserved for the theme park’s future expansion. Cheng said the government must up its game, and discuss with mainland authorities on imposing more measures. “Even Macau discussed with its mainland neighbour Zhuhai about containing the outbreak, and mainland cities considered ways to protect their own people. Has our government done enough on that front?” he asked. “Hong Kong officials also need to consider using public money, such as HK$200 million or HK$300 million, to buy surgical masks from around the world.” Lau believed that even Beijing would not oppose the idea of Hong Kong banning mainland residents from entering the city. “If you are bowing to discriminatory suggestions, of course, Beijing will oppose, but if Hong Kong needs to ban mainland and foreign visitors from entering so the city will not be sanctioned or banned by foreign countries as well, I think Beijing will understand,” he said. Lau feared that Hong Kong people’s response to the outbreak would make the central government more insecure about the city. “Hong Kong will also face more opposition on the mainland, even if Beijing wanted to roll out more measures to support its growth,” he said.