Hongkongers in Hubei turning into a political time bomb for Lam

February 21, 2020 13:05
A street scene in Wuhan, the capital of central China's Hubei province and the epicenter of the novel coronavirus outbreak. More than 2,500 Hong Kong residents are stranded in Hubei at the moment. Photo: Reuters

The first batch of stranded Hong Kong residents from the virus-stricken cruise liner Diamond Princess finally returned to our city on Thursday morning via a chartered flight arranged by the SAR government.

A second chartered flight, originally scheduled to depart Tokyo early on Friday, has been rescheduled to take off at 6 p.m., the Immigration Department said.

Secretary for Security John Lee Ka-chiu had earlier said a third chartered flight was being arranged.

As this was happening, the 2,500-plus Hongkongers stranded across central China's Hubei province, the epicenter of the novel coronavirus outbreak, might be asking: "When is our turn to be brought home?"

Among the Hongkongers trapped in Hubei are 10 confirmed to have been infected by the flu-like virus, according to government figures as of last week.

Wuhan, the capital of Hubei, was placed under lockdown on Jan. 23, and other cities in the province were also quarantined in the following days.

The administration has not provided an update on the number of confirmed Covid-19 patients among Hong Kong residents in the province, but it is certain that the stranded Hongkongers there are desperate to know when the SAR government is going to send chartered flights to rescue them.

Our Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Bureau (CMAB) explained that Hongkongers are scattered in several dozens of cities across the province, making it difficult to gather them at a particular airport at a particular time for evacuation.

Besides, the CMAB pointed out, there should be enough quarantine facilities in Hong Kong for the evacuees before the administration could start assisting them in returning to the city.

It is understood that many pro-establishment figures are getting increasingly anxious about the situation as they have been receiving a lot of calls for help from Hongkongers stranded in Hubei in recent weeks.

These pro-establishment figures are said to be talking to senior government officials so that the CMAB can follow the Security Bureau’s moves and bring back the Hongkongers in Hubei in batches.

One of them said several hundreds of Hongkongers are concentrated in Wuhan, and so that is where the government should focus its efforts in arranging for chartered flights to evacuate them.

Meanwhile, sources have revealed that the decision to send a task force to Japan to arrange for chartered flights was made by Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor herself.

As such, it is believed that it will be up to the chief executive to decide when the government will hire chartered flights to evacuate Hong Kong citizens from Hubei.

According to a source who is familiar with the matter, there are two main reasons why the government is refraining from bringing home the Hongkongers from the province at this point. One is that there are simply not enough quarantine facilities in the city to accommodate them, and second is that there could be a significant health risk to society if these people are brought back immediately, which is the biggest concern.

The source said one should not draw an easy parallel between Hubei and Yokohama, where the cruise ship is docked.

First of all, the Chinese province is the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak, and so the government must be extra careful when it comes to sending a task force there.

If any member on the government’s task force gets infected, the result could be catastrophic, the source said.

However, in our view, as the lives of thousands of Hongkongers in Hubei are now at stake, nobody can tell whether those who still manage to be healthy may eventually get infected as well as a result of the government’s delayed rescue.

Suffice it to say that the Hong Kong citizens stranded in Hubei have become a political time bomb for Lam and her governing team

And the later it gets for her to defuse it, the more likely it will evolve into another crisis for her already beleaguered government.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Feb 20

Translation by Alan Lee with additional reporting

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Columnist of Hong Kong Economic Journal.