Covid-19: Beijing’s response to HK plea shows who is in charge

August 11, 2020 09:34
Photo: Reuters

When Chief Executive Carrie Lam made her explosive announcement that elections scheduled for September would be delayed for a year because of the rampaging coronavirus, few people in Hong Kong – quite possibly including Lam herself – were aware of another announcement being made at the same time on the mainland.

The Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office announced that the Chinese government had decided to send personnel to Hong Kong to help carry out mass testing for Covid-19. This decision, it said, had been made after a request from the Hong Kong administration.

Many people were surprised that the Hong Kong government appeared not to have been notified in advance of this major development.

The situation may well reflect Beijing’s desire to be in direct control. Now that it has the coronavirus under control on the mainland, it understandably also wants to get the virus under control in Hong Kong. But what was surprising was that the Hong Kong authorities appear to have been kept in the dark – surely a sign of lack of respect, if not of policy differences.

On August 2, seven individuals, described as advance members of the mainland’s nucleic acid testing support team, duly arrived.

Hong Kong exempted them from the 14-day quarantine requirement because they came under the category of imported mainland technical staff and had tested negative within 72 hours prior to arrival.
The Hong Kong government explained that the support team would work to assist in enhancing virus testing capacity, establishing temporary hospital as well as expanding the scale of the Community Treatment Facilities. These facilities are also known as mobile field hospitals.

The spokesman thanked the central government for its “proactive” support, presumably by making provisions that had not been requested.

After the arrival of the advance team, the Hong Kong government issued a statement explaining that it had asked the central government for support “on the anti-epidemic work in the face of the severe Covid-19 epidemic.”

It then went on to voice gratitude for something Hong Kong had not requested. The government, it said, “is pleased to learn that the National Health Commission has formed another support team ” to help it establish a makeshift community treatment facility at AsiaWorld-Expo.

This offer by the National Health Commission was first disclosed by CCTV, which reported that another team of six experts from Wuhan would help Hong Kong develop a temporary “cabin hospital” since the city’s medical facilities were severely stretched.

According to the Hong Kong government, the core duty of the support team is to help strengthen the city’s virus testing capacity. Hong Kong has been conducting about 10,000 tests a day. With the mainland’s help, this is expected to rise to 200,000 tests a day or even substantially more.

Politically sensitive people have objected to mainlanders conducting tests in Hong Kong. With the newly imposed national security law fresh in their minds, they fear that China might use the tests to secure DNA information of Hong Kong residents.

In response, the Hong Kong government gave assurances that privacy would be respected and that no data would be sent to the mainland. Most importantly, Carrie Lam said that the testing would be voluntary, not mandatory.

A leading newspaper, Ming Pao, reported that China wanted mandatory testing of the entire population but that the city’s government and its medical experts had blocked the proposal. This could well be true.

Mining of DNA data may not be part of Beijing’s plan at present but China is a high-tech surveillance state and it is certainly not out of the question that the authorities may at some point want to build a genetic map of people in Hong Kong.

Lam knows that her unpopular government is in no position to conduct citywide testing if substantial numbers of people resist. However, if only a small minority volunteers, then testing may not yield the desired information. At that point, China may insist that Hong Kong adopt more forceful action.

This should be a lesson for Hong Kong. It has a tendency to ask Beijing for help, whatever the problem. The more Hong Kong shows it can’t cope, the more reason Beijing has for limiting its autonomy. Before Hong Kong asks for help again, it should keep in mind that Beijing may decide to give more than it is asked.

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Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.