On May 1, Edward arrived at the New Town Plaza shopping mall to attend a pro-democracy “singalong” protest. With a crowd of hundreds, it was one of the first large-scale gatherings since the coronavirus pandemic forced Hong Kong into partial lockdown in late January. 

As the numbers grew, people started to chant one of the most popular slogans from the mass demonstrations that have rocked the semi-autonomous city state since 2019: “Five demands and not one less.” Then the police began to line up individuals and search their bags.

At around 7pm, the crowd burst into “Glory to Hong Kong,” the anthem of the 2019 protest movement. It did not take long for hundreds of police officers to break up the gathering — firing pepper spray at the protesters and cordoning off the area — citing the violation of social distancing regulations that ban gatherings of more than four people.

“It is a method of oppression in the name of epidemic prevention,” Edward said.

President Xi Jinping’s government has sent tons of medical aid to nations including Egypt, Pakistan and Spain in recent months. These diplomatic moves have provided a considerable boost to China’s international reputation, but protesters like Edward — who wished to be identified by a pseudonym, for reasons of personal safety — believe that the Communist Party of China (CCP) is also using Covid-19 to crack down on their movement. 

Beijing’s liaison office in Hong Kong has condemned the protesters, accusing them of undermining the rule of law during the coronavirus crisis. In a statement, China’s Hong Kong Affairs Office described demonstrators as a “political virus,” and added that Hong Kong will “never be calm,” if they are not removed from the streets.

Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests were catalyzed by a controversial extradition bill that would have allowed for criminal suspects to be extradited to mainland China. As demonstrations grew larger and more violent, they gained increased attention from the world’s media. Then the arrival of Covid-19 stalled their momentum.

Jacob Stokes, a senior policy analyst for the China Program at the U.S. Institute of Peace, believes that the coronavirus crisis has benefited China in Hong Kong, “especially when you consider how big of a story it was last year and the degree to which measures undertaken to control the spread of the virus physically in Hong Kong have allowed China to slow protests for the most part.”

Hong Kong has imposed rigorous testing and social distancing regulations, and in April, its number of new Covid-19 cases fell to just two to four per day. Demonstrators have begun to take to the streets once again and the government is set to begin easing social-distancing measures and reopening some businesses this month.

However, Beijing’s stance has not changed. Backed by the CCP, Hong Kong police continue to take aggressive measures against protesters. At the New Town Plaza protest, the police fired pepper spray at civilians and district councilors who tried to coordinate with law enforcement. Two reporters were issued penalty tickets for breaking rules on public gatherings. They showed press passes but were dismissed by the police. 

According to Joshua Wong, a student activist and politician who has been a leading figure of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement, such tactics show “a contradiction and a double standard.” 

“Internally, the Chinese Communist Party tries to silence people’s voices. In external and foreign affairs, it tries to run the show, but this misleading propaganda is useless, because the world, under free flow of information can recognize what’s happening in the crackdown on protests in Hong Kong,” he said. 

Many foreign relations experts see China’s international medical aid campaign as a way to rehabilitate its international image, following criticism of the government’s initial slow response to the coronavirus pandemic. Some also believe that the CCP considers a resurgence of large-scale protests in Hong Kong to be detrimental to that cause and that it will want to quickly squash the movement.

The global broadcasting of chaotic and violent scenes on Hong Kong’s streets “would run counter to the efforts that it’s been putting in amid the Covid-19 crisis to improve its image on the international stage,” said Dr. Woo Su-keun, international studies professor at Hanyang University in Seoul. “If Hong Kong resumes protests, China’s soft power strategy will struggle even further.”

Stokes also believes that the government may be testing the waters to see how other countries react to its suppression of the protests.

“They are trying to strike the balance and see how much blowback and criticism they get from the rest of the world,” he said. “But ultimately, some reputational cost is not going to be enough to stop Beijing from trying to tighten its control over Hong Kong.” 

Meanwhile, the sight of 500 police officers firing pepper spray at peaceful, singing protesters has only made Edward more resolute. 

“As a protester faced with riot police, carrying out laws unreasonably and forcefully, our singing reminded everyone that people’s hearts will never die,” he said. “We are in the dark, waiting for dawn to come.”