The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Coronavirus binds Hong Kong even closer to Beijing as the mainland takes lead on pandemic response

The flag of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, right, flies alongside the flag of China outside the Exchange Square complex in Hong Kong, on May 29, 2020. (Lam Yik/Bloomberg News)
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HONG KONG — Bodies are piling up at Hong Kong’s hospitals so quickly that they are sitting unattended in the hallways as the mortuaries fill up. Grocery stores are stripped of food. Rumors of a citywide lockdown have sent residents into a panic and prompted a new wave of departures.

Enter Hong Kong’s pandemic savior: mainland China, which has sent doctors, nurses, construction workers and experts to the territory in recent weeks to manage the outbreak.

As Hong Kong’s covid emergency intensifies, putting immense strain on the city and its 7.5 million residents, the local government is leaning heavily on the mainland.

Amid the broader crackdown on democratic rights in the territory, observers say the crisis is providing an ideal pretext for China to further absorb Hong Kong, this time through its health care and civil service.

For two years, Hong Kong held off the pandemic. Then, everything fell apart.

The result is a further blurring of the lines between the “one country, two systems” framework under which the once-autonomous territory was meant to operate, closing the gap between previously freewheeling Hong Kong and the more restrictive mainland.

Even more than the new national security law, the coronavirus pandemic has bound Hong Kong and Beijing into a tighter embrace.

“The covid crisis has opened a boulevard to the ones in the Chinese Communist Party who had decided to kill the remaining political freedoms and elements of democracy existing in Hong Kong,” said Jean-Pierre Cabestan, an expert on Chinese politics at Hong Kong Baptist University.

What remains to be seen, Cabestan added, is whether this superimposed mainland system will be effective in managing Hong Kong, with the pandemic as a test case.

The degree of Beijing’s control over Hong Kong’s daily affairs has come a long way since protests erupted in 2019 over a law that would have allowed extraditions to mainland China because the legal systems between the two places are meant to be separate. The protests stalled during the pandemic, and Beijing was able to impose a draconian security law that gutted the opposition, jailing or exiling pro-democracy leaders.

Yet even with that law, it is the pandemic itself that has transformed the relationship between the mainland and the city as Beijing effectively takes over the management of Hong Kong’s outbreak, sending doctors, nurses and experts to the territory.

Hong Kong lost control of the pandemic once the more transmissible omicron variant began spreading, ending two years of remarkably low caseloads and coronavirus deaths. From highs of just over 100, Hong Kong is now recording tens of thousands of new infections daily.

On Wednesday, the U.S. State Department upgraded its travel advisory for Hong Kong to the highest level, “do not travel,” because of the covid risk. The advisory noted in particular that “in some cases, children in Hong Kong who test positive have been separated from parents” and isolated until they meet hospital discharge requirements.

More than 600 have died since the most recent outbreak began at the start of the year, three times more than in the previous two years. The outbreak has been disastrous for Hong Kong’s health-care system, particularly because the city’s most vulnerable are not adequately vaccinated.

Researchers at the University of Hong Kong say the cumulative number of deaths could reach over 4,000 by the end of April, with covid death rates already among the highest in the world.

In response, Hong Kong’s government — which is meant to administer the city’s local affairs — has doubled down on a “zero covid” strategy similar to the one used on the mainland. After culling thousands of hamsters, suspending flights into the territory, imposing strict social distancing restrictions and locking down parts of the city, authorities are now readying Hong Kong for mass testing.

Every resident will be tested three times later this month, and according to local media outlets, the city will be under lockdown during the testing drive.

Hong Kong officials insist that they remain in the driver’s seat, but the strategy mirrors that imposed on Wuhan during the start of the coronavirus outbreak, and then in other Chinese cities. Mainland doctors and nurses have arrived in the city to help, after authorities invoked emergency powers to waive registration and licensing requirements that are different in both places under the “one country, two systems” model. Beijing is also helping Hong Kong build new isolation facilities for covid patients.

Hong Kong’s ‘zero-covid’ policy buckles under the onslaught of omicron — but authorities won’t let it go

Rather than relying just on local experts — including at HKU, which has some of the world’s leading researchers on infectious diseases — Hong Kong has tapped Liang Wannian of China’s National Health Commission, a strong proponent of zero-covid, to help manage the crisis.

Much of this assistance came after Chinese President Xi Jinping told Hong Kong last month to manage the outbreak at all costs. Some of the mainland experts have brought with them the flag of the Chinese Communist Party, displaying it proudly on Hong Kong soil for the first time.

Hong Kong’s government in recent days has put out news releases extolling the mainland’s “staunch” and “ceaseless” national support. Chinese state media outlets have celebrated the arrival of the experts and personnel from the mainland, criticizing a Western-led pandemic strategy and celebrating China’s “socialist” model as more able to deal with the outbreak.

“Public health is about the well being of the whole population,” one columnist wrote in the Communist Party’s English-language China Daily on Tuesday. “Individual concerns and rights, including privacy, should give way to these overriding objectives.”

Steve Tsang, director of the SOAS China Institute at the University of London, said this integration is only the beginning.

“What is happening to the health sector is just a start of a process, when more and more of Hong Kong will be brought in line with practices on the mainland,” he said. China under Xi endorsed integration as early as 2017, sped it up after the anti-government protests of 2019 and is using covid to bring Hong Kong further in line, he said.

Hong Kong authorities have tried to use the presence of help from the mainland to calm and reassure residents. John Lee, the territory’s chief secretary, praised the completion of one of the isolation facilities as “miraculous.” He also promised residents that Hong Kong had enough supplies and that panic buying wasn’t necessary.

The reassurance has done little, and trust in the government remains extremely low. On Tuesday afternoon, eggs and bread were nowhere to be found in the city. One grocery store on the eastern side of Hong Kong Island appeared to be empty of almost all supplies.

China has since announced it was sending 30 butchers from the mainland to restore the supply of fresh pork in the slaughterhouses.

Tsang said the effectiveness of the mainland approach is of secondary concern in Hong Kong.

“If you are a hammer, you see everything as a nail, which is essentially the approach the CCP follows,” he said, referring to the Communist Party. “If it fails, it is Hong Kong’s failure, not that of the policy — so Hong Kong must change.”

Theodora Yu in Hong Kong contributed to this report.

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