The pandemic in Hong Kong is worsening by the day, putting a squeeze on the hospital system and quarantine facilities amid a shortage of antigen rapid test (ART) kits.
A friend who lives in Hong Kong lamented over the phone about the current situation. He said that unlike countries that have chosen to live with Covid-19, international quarantine-free travel has not resumed in Hong Kong. There are also no political bonuses to be reaped from the “zero-Covid” policy and no sign of quarantine-free travel with mainland China. Thus, things are neither here nor there.
My disheartened friend is starting to think about leaving Hong Kong with the family and living elsewhere.
He is not alone in feeling that way. In late January, Bloomberg and Reuters quoted a draft report by the European Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong saying that the zero-Covid policy is anticipated to lead to an “exodus” of foreign companies and foreigners — “probably the largest that Hong Kong has ever seen”.
The community is starting to panic, with a rush to buy groceries and queues for haircuts.
At the time, Hong Kong was seeing less than 100 new cases a day. Now, that figure is around 1,000. With many cases from unknown sources, various expert teams have made the pessimistic forecast that Hong Kong might see over 10,000 cases within the next two weeks.
Modelling done by the University of Hong Kong’s Faculty of Medicine projected daily case counts to possibly hit 28,000 by mid- to late March, with 15 to 20 deaths a day. Faculty dean Professor Gabriel Leung proposed mandatory lockdown measures for Hong Kong, similar to mainland China.
The community is starting to panic, with a rush to buy groceries and queues for haircuts. And with hospital beds full, some confirmed cases have had to temporarily isolate at home; however, most homes in Hong Kong are small, and isolating at home actually makes it easier for the virus to spread, and causes anxiety among other residents.
It has to be said that outsiders should not mock the fact that the virus is going “almost out of control” in Hong Kong, because compared to Singapore’s recent daily cases of over 10,000 and the tens or hundreds of thousands of cases in South Korea, Japan and the US, the results of Hong Kong’s pandemic efforts are not bad.
Pandemic efforts tied to Asian vs Western schools of thought
However, the case count is not the only gauge of the success of an anti-epidemic strategy. The cost to society and whether the community has stuck together through the process and maintained trust in the system and confidence in the future, are all also part of the solution.
In Hong Kong, pandemic efforts have been elevated to a tussle between Asian and Western systems and ideologies. The opposition between the values of “safety” and “freedom and openness” has again been stirred, and social divisions have once again been exposed.
...will highlighting opposing ideologies help Hong Kong overcome this new wave of Covid-19 cases?
Since late January, pro-Beijing Hong Kongers and media have written a flurry of editorials and commentaries saying that choosing between “dynamic zero-Covid” and “living with the virus” is not just a choice of pandemic efforts, but it is also a tussle between ideologies, political systems and values.
They also say that US and UK media are using Hong Kong to exert pressure on China’s zero-Covid policy, and are trying to use “international status” as a form of coercion to drive a wedge between Hong Kong and mainland China, and urge Hong Kong not to fall for the tactics of foreign forces.
On 11 February, Cheung Chi-kong, executive director of the One Country Two Systems Research Institute and member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, wrote an article in Ming Pao titled “Our hHealth and Life Belong to ‘One Country’” (“我们的健康和生命是属于‘一国’”), putting the tussle over Hong Kong’s pandemic policy on the level of the opposition between “one country” and “two systems” and accusing the elites governing Hong Kong of “believing in the UK and US in their bones”.
While Cheung’s remarks may be a reflection of reality, will highlighting opposing ideologies help Hong Kong overcome this new wave of Covid-19 cases?
With great effort and political will, mainland China successfully contained the pandemic in 2020. It used the success of its zero-Covid policy to promote the superiority of China’s system, strengthen the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party’s rule and condemn the mindset of “living with the virus” as “lying flat” (躺平) and a form of “capitulationism” that disregards human life.
China’s achievements in pandemic containment are clear for all to see. It performed exceedingly well due to its strong capabilities in mobilising resources and data management, as well as having a relatively unified social psyche and a market backed by strong domestic demand. But the zero-Covid policy may not suit all countries and economies.
As Hong Kong and the mainland seek to get in sync amid the pandemic, the clashes between both parties’ realities and values have again intensified.
Beijing feels Hong Kong has been half-hearted about zero-Covid policy
Beijing has always been worried about Hong Kong’s anti-epidemic measures. From Beijing’s point of view, when the pandemic situation worsened, not only did Hong Kong not adopt mass testing like what was done in mainland Chinese cities, it also refused help from the mainland and delayed the use of “health codes” that could be applicable in both the mainland and Hong Kong.
...they are perhaps also bound by a deeply entrenched colonial mentality and believe that Western approaches are more reliable and sophisticated than the mainland’s.
Beijing’s clear dissatisfaction with Hong Kong’s anti-epidemic measures is evidenced by the fact that it told Tam Yiu-chung, Hong Kong’s delegate to the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress, not to attend the committee’s meeting in Beijing last October. This is why Beijing has yet to lift its tight mainland-HK border restrictions.
The mainland believes that Hong Kong is somewhere in between implementing a “zero-Covid” policy and “living with the virus”. In contrast, while Hong Kong’s governing elites are aware of the difficulties in implementing the mainland’s strict anti-epidemic measures in Hong Kong, they are perhaps also bound by a deeply entrenched colonial mentality and believe that Western approaches are more reliable and sophisticated than the mainland’s.
Hong Kong should be able to decide its pandemic containment path
In this regard, it is just as “Chairman Rabbit” (兔主席) — an internet celebrity that Cheung admires — has analysed: due to practical and psychological reasons, Hong Kong’s governing elites have “opportunistically” implemented a zero-Covid policy for the sake of reopening its borders with China. It is a short-term reactive approach — if the border is reopened, well and good; if it’s not, so be it. And the outcome of such a mentality is clear as day: nothing will be achieved.
However, Chairman Rabbit did suggest that Hong Kong could be a guinea pig in an experiment of the West’s anti-epidemic model of “living with the virus”. Hong Kong will bear the responsibility and costs of the experiment of course, and perhaps Hong Kong’s experience would offer some new ideas for the mainland in its next stage of pandemic containment measures. I wonder if he was actually speaking up for Hong Kong indirectly, and suggesting that Hong Kong should be given the autonomy to implement a different policy.
A Hong Kong that is different from the mainland and that has its own unique characteristics is actually more valuable to Beijing. But the past few years of frictions have led to Beijing’s deep distrust of Hong Kongers and Hong Kong elites.
Now, Hong Kong’s top priority is to put a halt to the debate over which policy to follow and to contain the pandemic through the most feasible and necessary measures, instead of resurrecting opposition and ideological differences whenever challenges arise. Hopefully, Hong Kong’s future will not be dogged by these battles.
Related: The fight against Omicron reveals Hong Kong’s disunity | Hong Kongers moving to Taiwan: Temporary haven or permanent home? | Why Hong Kong is failing to stop the spread of Covid-19 again | When Beijingers can't return home: Is China going overboard with its zero-Covid measures? | Lessons from Xi’an: Why there is no one-size-fits-all solution to Covid-19