This year sees the 50th anniversary of my arrival in Hong Kong. I know there are many Westerners who have lived here even longer, but I hope I can claim to have a degree of perspective. In all those years I cannot recall seeing many things as striking as the events of the past few weeks. The Central People’s Government in Beijing has taken over direct control of a major area of social policy following de facto abdication by the local administration.
It has always been the understanding as far back as the original Sino British Joint Declaration of 1984 that defence and foreign affairs would be handled by the CPG, everything else after 1997 would be handled by the local administration with “a high degree of autonomy”. Contrary to what many overseas critics have claimed, Beijing has generally taken great care to abide by its undertakings, and has been driven to intervene only when the Hong Kong end has proved unable to deliver. The failure by the legislature to operate properly led to the introduction of the political reform package, and the failure to introduce national security legislation in a timely manner resulted in the National Security Law.
Now we have the Covid-19 pandemic. The virus has been with the world for two years, and vaccines have been available for one. Hong Kong was very slow to vaccinate the general population in 2021 and missed opportunity after opportunity to drive rates up faster. Vaccination rates have recently seen a welcome pick-up, but too late. We rode our luck during the first four waves but the omicron variant has found us out.
This was vividly illustrated by the scenes outside our hospitals and testing centres in recent weeks. The sight of patients on beds queueing up in hospital carparks for lack of capacity to admit them could have come from Syria or Afghanistan after collapse of the governments there. Asia’s world city in the 21st century? Particularly poignant were the pictures of a mother holding her well-blanketed baby as she dozed upright on a plastic chair. Was I the only person to think of the Bible? Here were the swaddling clothes, where was the manger?
The local administration simply ran out of ideas. For many months we had endured swingeing social distancing measures and strict quarantine conditions that effectively shut us off from the outside world, yet all to no avail. We “bought time” – paid for in the currency of disrupted education for the next generation -- but wasted it. All the while we were told the priority was to secure border opening with the mainland, but the administration never really understood the term “dynamic clearing” and so never met its requirements.
Finally something burst in Beijing. We will probably never know which was the last straw that broke the camel’s back: the sudden jump in covid deaths, in particular of children and infants; the scandal of the birthday party which seemed to ensnare so many senior officials; the belated admission that we did not have sufficient doctors, or nurses, or technicians, or quarantine beds or testing capacity; the farce of the hamster cull; the combination of all of them? So for two months when the focus should have been on successful hosting of the winter Olympics, international media coverage has been saturated with dramatic pictures of one Hong Kong failure after another.
erhaps it was the unconfirmed rumour that Beijing was having to prepare contingency plans in case the inauguration of the sixth term administration had to be moved to Shenzhen. Whatever the cause, the result has been sweeping.
President Xi Jinping has taken the unusual step of issuing a high profile directive to the chief executive, Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, communicated via front page stories issued at 4 am in two leftwing papers, to make virus suppression the government’s top priority. The next election for chief executive, in which Lam had hoped to be a candidate, was postponed until 8 May which becomes effectively the deadline for the disease to be eradicated here. The Director of the Hong Kong & Macau Affairs Office, Xia Baolong has personally moved operations to Shenzhen to take overall command of the situation and ensure the administration stays focused. Xia is backed up by senior officials from Beijing including retired medical expert Zhong Nanshan (aged 85), and top Guangdong provincial officials. All the deficiencies listed above will be made good from mainland resources. Already hundreds of personnel have crossed the border and thousands more are poised to follow.