Shanghai | One side effect of the coronavirus pandemic in Hong Kong is that the crisis it has shut down the political protests which dominated news headlines for much of last year.
After six months of upheaval, the Asian financial hub's streets have been quiet since January, when the first cases of COVID-19 were reported in the city.
But an increasingly emboldened China is now taking advantage of the fact that its western challengers, led by the United States, are distracted by their own crises to ramp up its crackdown on Hong Kong's pro-democracy movement.
The arrest of 15 of the city's most prominent China critics at the weekend marks a dangerous turning point in Beijing's encroachment on the city's autonomy. The move to detain figures such as Martin Lee, the respected founder of the city's democracy movement, is provocative to say the least. At 81, Lee is hardly a threat to Hong Kong's national security.
The objective view is that the legal system is just working its way through the thousands of cases from last year's mass protests waiting to be prosecuted. But it is an unlikely coincidence that 15 of the city's most high-profile activists were all arrested on Saturday at the same time.
The move came after a week of sabre-rattling from Beijing, where its top official overseeing Hong Kong said China was not bound by an article in the city's mini-constitution which restricts interference in local affairs.
China is also ramping up pressure to introduce national security laws in Hong Kong which would give the local government more power to lock up Beijing's critics.
The biggest concern at the moment is the independence of Hong Kong's judiciary. This is crucial for preserving the city's status as an Asian financial hub. Many of the 100,000 Australians who live there, a lot of them lawyers and bankers, are only in Hong Kong because of a western-style legal system which should protect them from Chinese government influence.
There are increasing signs this is under threat.
The pressure on Hong Kong's legal system from the more than 7000 protest-related arrests last year is unprecedented. At the same time, there is growing criticism from China or pro-Beijing politicians in Hong Kong about the appointment of some judges and whether the courts can rule on constitutional matters.
A Reuters story last week quoted three of Hong Kong’s top judges warning the independence of the city’s judicial system was under attack from Beijing.
There are also concerns foreign judges in Hong Kong could step down if there is enough intimidation from Beijing. A panel of foreign experts overseeing a police brutality probe already quit last year because they gave up on finding a way to conduct an effective investigation.
These are all issues that have been raised at the senior levels of the Australian government.
The 500 Australian companies with a presence in Hong Kong may be asking themselves if the city is still a safe place to do business. While some Australian expatriates left temporarily in January because of the outbreak, the persistent clashes last year were not enough to trigger a widespread exodus of Australians from the city.
This is largely because Hong Kong's legal system is the "very foundation of a financial centre", according to one well-connected Australian in Hong Kong.
The Hong Kong government is powerless to resist Beijing no matter how much it breaches international treaties it signed with Britain. China has little to lose with the United States at the moment as it fights a bigger ideological battle over the coronavirus. The UK is also powerless to help the city it handed to China in 1997.
This makes Hong Kong's value as an international financial hub its only real protection against China's advances. How far will China go to stamp out dissent if it destroys the city's value as a financial centre, a gateway for capital flows and a safe place for many well-connected Chinese citizens to keep assets? With its economy going backwards for the first time in decades, China needs Hong Kong's special status more than ever.
Once the distraction of the outbreak is over, there is no doubt the protests will resume with more venom, and possibly bloodshed, than we saw last year. The Legislative Council elections in September will also turn up the political heat. Backed by Beijing and chief executive Carrie Lam, Hong Kong's police commissioner Chris Tang has indicated he's ready to take on the protest movement.
In a disturbing move, the Hong Kong government is using the threat of "terrorism" in discussions with Australia and diplomats from other countries when defending its hardline actions against protesters.
This follows the seizure by police of materials used to make bombs and reports of several explosions . However, many diplomats are not buying it. The government has so far failed to produce any evidence linking alleged caches of "bomb-making materials" with the pro-democracy movement.
And while the government talks up the terrorism threat, it's also wary of Australia and others reacting by stepping up travel warnings. This would further damage its economy.
Hong Kong reported its first new COVID-19 case on Sunday in 10 days.
The outbreak has highlighted how mistrustful Hong Kong citizens are of their government. This manifested itself in panic buying in January and a strike by hospital workers in February to convince Lam to close the border with China. The Hong Kong people, rather than the government, get the credit for the way the city has managed the outbreak.
Unfortunately for Hong Kong, once the pandemic is under control a return to "normality" means weekend tear gas attacks and political upheaval. And Beijing is watching.