'The atmosphere was starting to make me unhappy'

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Radio Free Asia

The news that Arisina Ma, a former president of the Hong Kong Public Doctors’ Association, left Hong Kong last week has sparked concern amid an ongoing wave of emigration, especially of highly skilled professionals, from the city. Yet Ma, who spoke to RFA’s Cantonese Service before her departure for the U.K. to take a job in the National Health Service (NHS), insists she hasn’t emigrated.

Instead, Ma cited growing political pressure on medical professionals under an ongoing crackdown on public dissent and political opposition under a national security law imposed on the city by the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) from July 1, 2020. Ma said that while she had never previously considered leaving her home, she hopes to develop her career in the U.K. with a view to going back to Hong Kong, should things improve.

“The atmosphere was starting to make me unhappy, I think maybe like a lot of other people in Hong Kong,” she told RFA. “I need a change.”」

Yet the future remains uncertain. “I don’t know exactly,” she said, when asked her long-term plans for the future.

Ma said the political climate had left her with “things to consider” as a doctor, feeling as she does that interpersonal trust is hugely important for the medical profession.

During the 2019 protest movement, which began in opposition to plans to allow the extradition of alleged criminal suspects to face trial in mainland China and broadened into calls for universal suffrage and greater accountability for police violence, Ma was outspoken in her criticism of the use of excessive force by the Hong Kong Police Force, and of the government’s handling of the protests.

An occasional target of attacks in the CCP-backed media, Ma said that while she never experienced personal harassment, she felt under pressure all the same.  

“To be honest, I received a lot of complaints about the things I was saying,” Ma said. “Saying that my public statements were unprofessional. I wondered if they would file a complaint with the Medical Council.”

“It got to the point where they were making complaints about stuff I never even said,” Ma said.  

If the Council upholds a complaint against a medical practitioner, in serious cases, the doctor can be struck off. Asked if the Council was able to protect doctors now, Ma said that while the mechanism was fine, those in charge of the Council were affected by the current political climate. 

“Whether or not there is a sense of fairness and justice in society as a whole greatly affects whether people are protected [by such processes],” Ma said. “I don’t think there is right now.”

Ma said she was also greatly concerned about the Hong Kong government’s insistence that everyone in public service take an oath of loyalty to the government and to the CCP, in a process that has seen dozens of pro-democracy voices expelled from public office for oaths that are judged insincere due to previous public statements and activities.

Public hospital employees are likely next in line to take the oaths, and this policy has driven large numbers of medical staff to leave Hong Kong, Ma told RFA.

“I was absolutely worried about the oath issue,” Ma said. “That was one of the things that led me to resign.”

Anyone taking the oath would also need to be very guarded about any future public comments, she said.

She declined to comment on the likely fate of the Public Doctors’ Association, given that a number of high-profile civic groups, including the city’s oldest teachers’ union, have been forced to disband after being denounced in CCP-backed media for violating the national security law.

But she adds: “There have been really huge changes. I don’t think anyone could have predicted in 2019 that we would even be considering the possibility of trade unions disbanding.”

Under the new political regime in Hong Kong, Ma said she expects “drastic changes” to the way doctors practice medicine in Hong Kong.

“Once the values and world view change, the entire healthcare industry will change too,” she said.  

She said she can’t foresee that anyone in the next Legislative Council will seriously support investing in geriatric medicine under the new regime.

“But I have no regrets,” Ma said. “Given the changes that are taking place right now, Hongkongers can only take it one step at a time.”

“I hope that everyone in Hong Kong and many other friends both in Hong Kong and overseas will eventually find a sense of psychological security,” Ma said. “Life is meaningless without that.”

Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.

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