“API Geoeconomic Briefing” is a weekly analysis of significant geopolitical and geoeconomic developments that precede the post-pandemic world. The briefing is written by experts at Asia Pacific Initiative (API) and includes an assessment of burgeoning trends in international politics and economics and the possible impact on Japan’s national interests and strategic response. (Editor-in-chief: Dr. HOSOYA Yuichi, Research Director, API; Professor, Faculty of Law, Keio University; Visiting Fellow, Downing College, University of Cambridge)
This article was posted to the Japan Times on March 31, 2022:
API Geoeconomic Briefing
March 31, 2022
How China aims to treat Hong Kong’s explosive COVID-19 outbreak
Professor, College of Law and Politics, Rikkyo University
While the world’s attention is focused on Ukraine, Hong Kong is being forced to fight against something totally different — the coronavirus.
For more than two years since the first COVID-19 outbreak, Hong Kong has been relatively successful in containing the virus. However, the situation changed completely with the emergence of the omicron variant.
After the daily cases of new infections in Hong Kong topped 100 in late January, the number experienced an explosive growth, exceeding 1,000 cases a day on Feb. 9, 10,000 cases a day on Feb. 25 and 50,000 cases a day on March 2.
Hospitals ran short of beds as people formed long queues in front of medical facilities.
The number of deaths per day topped 100, forcing some public hospitals to place the deceased in emergency rooms as morgues filled up.
Many distribution truck drivers became infected, causing shortages of fresh foods. Train and bus services were either reduced or suspended. Kindergartens, elementary schools and high schools started their summer break on March 7, much earlier than usual.
The Chinese government is treating the crisis in Hong Kong as a top priority.
Ta Kung Pao and Wen Wei Po, pro-Beijing newspapers in Hong Kong, reported on their respective Feb. 16 front pages that Chinese President Xi Jinping had issued “zhongyao zhishi,” or “important instructions,” to Hong Kong authorities regarding their anti-pandemic efforts.
“Hong Kong’s government must take up the main responsibility to stabilize and control the pandemic as soon as possible as a mission that overrides everything, mobilize all available forces and resource and take all necessary measures to ensure the safety and health of Hong Kong’s citizens and the stability of Hong Kong’s society,” the instructions said, according to reports.
It is extremely rare for a Chinese leader to issue such instructions related to Hong Kong.
The fact that Xi specifically mentioned the need to ensure the stability of society indicates his concerns over conflicts of views among the government and public opposition to disease control measures becoming a political issue. He may be recalling the nightmare of pro-democracy movements in Hong Kong in 2019.
In response to the edict, the Hong Kong government was forced to take a policy shift to implement stricter measures.
In February, Hong Kong banned unvaccinated people from entering shopping malls, restaurants and a host of other places.
Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam had initially said that there was no need to postpone the election of Hong Kong’s next leader, scheduled for March 27. Following Xi’s issuing of the instructions, however, she announced that the election would be delayed until May 8 to give top priority to the battle against surging COVID-19 infections.
As Beijing effectively pulls the strings in an election to choose Hong Kong’s leader, whether Lam succeeds in containing the virus will decide her fate in the coming election.
‘COVID zero’ strategy
China has persistently trumpeted that it achieved “COVID zero,” something not possible in Western countries. The country, which had been seen as the place where the coronavirus outbreak first emerged, came to be known globally as a success story in terms of containing the virus.
China has implemented stringent anti-COVID measures such as quickly identifying close contacts of confirmed coronavirus cases and suppressing the spread of infections at an early stage through large-scale testing and lockdowns of buildings and districts. Many of these measures are conducted through the use of a surveillance app to monitor people’s movements.
Such a policy is possible in China where privacy and personal rights can be restricted, and Chinese leaders believe the achievement of COVID zero not only represents a success of their policies but also a symbol of the superiority of the Chinese system.
However, the situation in Hong Kong shows that it is difficult to apply Chinese-style policy to places outside mainland China.
It also reveals the limits to the capability of the Chinese system to respond to issues that cannot be controlled based on preset scenarios.
Hong Kong, with a population of roughly 7.5 million, has been seeing new infections confirmed in every part of the city at a level of 50,000 cases a day, overwhelming hospitals and quarantine facilities. In such a situation, identifying contacts and isolating them does not mean much in terms of preventing the spread of infections.
However, as previously mentioned, the pillars of the Chinese-style COVID-19 control regime are testing and isolation. Following Xi’s instructions, the Hong Kong government announced that all residents will have to undergo three rounds of PCR testing, something that has not been done before.
If implemented, the testings are likely to identify an enormous number of infected people at globally unheard-of levels.
But even if they identify infections, there are not enough facilities to isolate or treat them. So what would be the purpose of conducting so many tests? At last, on March 21, the Hong Kong government was forced to announce the postponement of the PCR testing of all residents.
Hong Kong has had issues regarding vaccines as well.
The Hong Kong government had been planning to adopt an mRNA vaccine developed by Pfizer-BioNTech, just like Japan. But immediately after Xi told Lam on Jan. 27 last year that he was “worried and concerned” about the spread of infections in Hong Kong, the authorities fast tracked the approval of an inactivated vaccine, developed by Chinese firm Sinovac Biotech, for emergency use.
Inoculations of people in Hong Kong first began with the Sinovac vaccine. The use of mRNA vaccines followed later, but some 2 million people have received the Sinovac shot so far.
Meanwhile, a number of experiments have proven that the Sinovac vaccine has lower efficacy compared with mRNA vaccines. Given such findings, countries like Japan and Singapore have not approved the Sinovac vaccine.
Hong Kong media initially reported widely on cases of side effects among those who got the Sinovac jab, making many people, especially the elderly, vaccine-hesitant. And some point out that this may be the reason behind a huge number of deaths caused by the coronavirus in Hong Kong.
Lack of debate
Because the Chinese government has made its disease control policy a top priority, in Hong Kong it has become taboo in a sense to engage in cool-headed debate over problems related to Chinese-style disease control measures.
The extraordinary directive issued by Xi for Hong Kong was released in an extraordinary way as well.
Usually, “important instructions” are first released by the state-run Xinhua News Agency, whose reports are then carried widely by Chinese media.
But this did not happen with the instruction on Hong Kong, and it was only reported by two state-run newspapers in the city.
Chinese authorities probably wanted the Hong Kong government to bear a heavy responsibility for failing to contain the virus, but without letting the people in mainland China become aware that an explosive outbreak was occurring in the territory.
After the Communist Party-led administration failed to cover up the outbreak of COVID-19 in Wuhan, it quickly shifted its course to seriously work on disease control and appeared to have been successful. But this does not mean its habit of being reluctant to face the inconvenient truth has been eradicated.
The situation is still ongoing, and it is uncertain how this crisis will turn out. But China’s moves regarding disease control already show how it is trying to handle Hong Kong, which went through a major protest movement in 2019.
It also offers an important perspective for Japan in considering how to interact with Hong Kong and China.
As can be seen typically in the introduction of a new national security law for Hong Kong in 2020, the Chinese government has been trying to suppress demonstrations by abolishing several special treatments that had been allowed under the “one country, two systems” policy and incorporating Hong Kong in the Chinese-style system over which the Communist Party has centralized control.
Making Hong Kong adopt Chinese-style disease control is a part of such moves.
A stance of eliminating diversity within the country — such as benefits for minorities, objections to the government and regional distinctiveness — and treating everyone uniformly is one of the characteristics of the Xi administration also visible in its governance over ethnic minorities.
The Chinese government being insensitive about Hong Kong’s distinctiveness as a global business hub means Beijing will act the same way toward the global community, including Japan.
For instance, Hong Kong’s disease control measures — weeks of compulsory quarantine at designated hotels for those arriving in the city in particular — are much more stringent than those in other international financial centers in Asia such as Singapore, leading to complaints from many foreign firms and foreign nationals.
With the spread of the more transmissible omicron variant, more Hong Kong citizens are calling for an adoption of a policy to live with COVID-19, like in some Western countries, and the need to start considering a resumption of cross-border movement.
Still, the Chinese government has been strongly criticizing the idea of living with COVID-19 in state-run media such as Xinhua, and has been calling on Hong Kong to stick with and achieve the Chinese-style COVID zero policy so that restrictions on travel between the city and mainland China can be lifted.
With such a high hurdle set, there is no knowing now when Hong Kong will be able to lift overseas travel restrictions. And it has been reported that the exodus of foreign firms and foreign nationals from Hong Kong is accelerating.
Disease control is a typical example of Hong Kong adopting China-style policies.
Hong Kong’s shift to China-style systems, being implemented fully in political, judicial, social, economic and international relations areas, has prompted some people in Japan and other countries to question Hong Kong’s raison d’etre.
The change in Hong Kong seems to show us that, unfortunately, we are facing an era in which people from Japan and elsewhere, in getting along with China or Hong Kong, can no longer talk business while putting politics aside.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this API Geoeconomic Briefing do not necessarily reflect those of the API, the API Institute of Geoeconomic Studies or any other organizations to which the author belongs.