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Opinion: In Hong Kong, the government is weaponising sex to downplay its failures

BY SOPHIE MAK

Last week, Chief Executive Carrie Lam announced a ban on alcohol sales at eateries as part of a series of measures to combat the spread of coronavirus. She explained the decision was made because “people get intimate when they are drunk” and intimacy could “raise the risk of cross-infection.”

Any logical person can immediately see how completely laughably and ineffective her solution is. If she wishes to limit intimate physical contact between people, there are many other ways. The most effective measure is most certainly to just ban or restrict group gatherings in crowded places like eateries. An alcohol ban is simply ineffective in stopping people from going out and socialising in groups. Given there are so many other more effective measures, how did Lam come to this decision in the first place? In my opinion, it was likely fuelled by a sexist rumour (later deemed unfounded) that began to spread only a few days prior.

On Mar. 21, local tabloids began to run pieces alleging that one of the five infected patients, a 50-year-old local female resident who spent time in the nightlight district of Lan Kwai Fong, may have had multiple one-night-stands. Shortly after, newspapers and online sites published a flurry of sensationalist posts perpetuating the notion that people naturally become more promiscuous after drinking alcohol. For example, one media outlet even published an article discussing how one’s horoscope sign can determine whether one is more likely to lose control and act sluttishly after getting intoxicated. Lam’s statement also led to a flurry of netizens on online forums to judgementally and incessantly discuss the age of the infected woman, the number of sex partners she has had, and to try and uncover her identity.

From time to time, our government has used “sex” to its advantage to deny the existence of severe social problems and divert attention from poor policy-making. As it goes, sex sells: this applies not only to advertising a product or promoting a movie, but also to introducing policy. With regards to policymaking, the mere talk of sex can immediately divert unwanted attention away from the abject failures of the promoted policy. Lam bets on the public to ignore the implications of her far-from-helpful plan and instead partake in more entertaining discussions on whether drinking can really make people lose their inhibitions.

Lam’s later flip-flopping on her policies is an indication of just how ill-thought-out her initial plan was. On Mar. 27, Lam retracted the alcohol ban and claimed that it was merely a “suggestion” rather than an announcement. Then, on Friday, Lam finally announced her decision to temporarily close bars and other liquor-selling premises for 14 days. 

At the peak of the anti-government protests, our government also used sex as a tactic to deflect blame. On Sep. 9, Fanny Law, senior advisor to Lam, made a controversial claim during a radio phone-in programme that young girls involved in protest movements were “misled into offering free sex” to frontline male demonstrators. She also said that she knew for a fact that a 14-year-old schoolgirl had made such an offer and later became pregnant, even though her claim was based on information she had only “heard second-hand” from a family friend. In other words, Law made this accusation even though she did not have any concrete evidence.

The claim was meant to convince the public and reaffirm the notion that protestors are only anti-establishment for the benefits of money and sex. Her claims reflect the degree of denial the government is in. Law was unwilling to admit that major governance failures—and the government’s unwillingness to address young people’s dissatisfaction—had resulted in discontentment and rebellion. Her comments are reminiscent of insults used by many Chinese online commentators comparing Hong Kong female protestors to comfort women, a term specifically used to refer to women who were tortured and subjected to forced prostitution by the Japanese army during World War II. 

For Law, her accusations were even more disgusting as they unabashedly degraded women as mere sex objects. There was an obvious agenda of sexual humiliation, and it is alarming that it was a woman who made such a claim. During the anti-government protests late last year, girls and women in Hong Kong have continuously proven that they can be brave fighters who are willing to fight in the frontlines alongside men. The high participation rate of women in these protests indicates that their strong belief that they are entitled to the same opportunities as men when it comes to standing up for their ideals. Fan’s comments echoed the older generations’ misguided belief that women simply do not have sufficient political wisdom to know right from wrong; that they do not have enough bravery to put themselves on the frontline and that they do not have the ability to do anything without being guided or controlled by men.  

Lam and Law’s actions are reflective of their warped, backward and despicable attitudes towards women in Hong Kong. The former portrays herself as a caring and loving mother figure poised to reign in promiscuous, “wayward behaviour” of her spoiled “children” (in particular, of women); the latter sees women only for their sexuality but not their ideals, free will and principles.

Instead of looking at the situation objectively and making decisions based on facts, Lam again patronisingly adopted the trope of Hong Kong’s disapproving, slut-shaming mother. It is not a coincidence that her announcement to ban alcohol sales came just two days after said rumours began swirling online. Her traditional Chinese mother’s sentiment becomes apparent because the underlying message of her announcement is that she deems the mere act of going out to bars and clubs is, in-and-of itself, uncouth and slutty. She reflects the view that many Chinese parents to this day still hold: that night-outs are simply not something that well-behaved and respectable women do (although the same view rarely applies to men).

I’m tired of the government weaponising sex to get what they want, which is to downplay governance failures and divert our attention from what truly matters. The antiquated views of officials on issues like sexuality, as well as their dismissive attitudes towards women, are harmful to a society where women are continually striving to tear down stereotypes and biases. As such, we need to continue to resist and call out their puritanical focus on their citizens’ sex lives—as well as their iron-fist approach in restricting so-called “unruly” behaviour.

About the author

Sophie Mak is a law and literature student at the University of Hong Kong. She volunteers as a digital verification researcher for Amnesty International and has been monitoring the anti-government protests in Hong Kong. Her words have been featured in Hong Kong Free Press. Follow her on Twitter.

About the editor

Jessie Lau is a journalist and artist from Hong Kong covering identity, human rights and politics, with a focus on China. Her work has been published by The Nation, Foreign Policy and The Economist, among others. She serves as Board Member and Online Editor-in-Chief at NüVoices, and was formerly a reporter with the South China Morning Post. She holds a MSc from the London School of Economics, an LLM from Peking University and a BA from the University of California, Berkeley. Website: www.laujessie.com. Twitter: @_laujessie