Why is Carrie Lam rejecting calls for border closure?

February 05, 2020 10:45
Carrie Lam's decisions on border controls amid the China coronavirus crisis are made with an eye on how Beijing would react, critics say. Photo: Bloomberg

One month ago, nobody would have imagined that the citizens of Hong Kong would have to wear face masks throughout the entire Lunar New Year holiday, a scene that was highly reminiscent of the SARS catastrophe back in 2003.

Like the SARS epidemic 17 years ago, the novel coronavirus that caused the Wuhan pneumonia outbreak this time is also believed to have originated from wildlife meat sold in China. And Hong Kong has become one of the first regions outside the mainland to record confirmed cases of the new disease.

Luckily, the painful history of the SARS epidemic that took 299 lives hasn’t repeated itself, at least for now, thanks to the vigilance and untiring efforts of Hong Kong citizens and healthcare workers.

Yet unfortunately, 17 years on, it appears the only entity that hasn’t learned any lesson from history and hasn’t made any improvement is the Hong Kong government itself.

During a recent media interview, Professor Yuen Kwok-yung of the Department of Microbiology of the HKU Li Ka Shing Faculty of Medicine told reporters that the Hong Kong administration had remained “3 steps ahead” in preventing the Wuhan pneumonia at the early stage of the outbreak.

Nevertheless, as he pointed out, it was after the first confirmed case in Hong Kong had been reported that the SAR government’s preventive measures began to fall behind the rapidly developing situation.

As we all know, the first person in the city diagnosed with the Wuhan pneumonia is a mainland man who travelled from Wuhan to Hong Kong by high-speed rail.

And everybody knows that the “measures which have fallen behind the developing situation” that Professor Yuen was referring to during the media interview is the Hong Kong government’s continued refusal to enforce a full border shutdown.

Article 154 (2) of the Basic Law stipulates that “the government of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region may apply immigration controls on entry into, stay in and departure from the region by persons from foreign states and regions.”

In other words, the Basic Law has given the SAR government sufficient power to determine its own border control measures, including denying entry to mainlanders. Such power is indeed one of the key indicators of “Two Systems” that set Hong Kong apart from the rest of the country in the mainland.

Seen from a scientific, medical or legal point of view, enforcing a complete border closure against the mainland is a viable and feasible option to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus into Hong Kong.

However, Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor’s sluggish response to mounting public calls for completely shutting down the border with the mainland suggests that she isn’t formulating preventive measures against the deadly virus from a scientific, medical or legal perspective.

Instead, it appears she’s been directing the campaign against the pneumonia purely based on political considerations, i.e. making every effort to save Beijing’s face. Simply put, as far as the CE is concerned, the only thing that matters is the feelings of her Beijing bosses, not the health of Hong Kong citizens.

As a matter of fact, according to certain pro-establishment figures who had met with Carrie Lam to discuss the epidemic crisis several days ago, the CE told them during the meeting that the reason why she insisted on not enforcing a full border shutdown is because she is worried that it might exacerbate cross-border tensions.

If this is really Lam's only concern, we can say that all she has in her mind is the “China logic” and not much else.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Feb 4

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Legco member representing the Legal functional constituency (2016-2020) and a founding member of Civic Party