China and, to a lesser extent, Hong Kong remain committed to restrictive strategies to deal with Covid-19 that go against the global trend of post-pandemic reopening. Yuen-ying Chan of The University of Hong Kong argues that Hong Kong should end its piecemeal approach to exiting zero Covid and abandon remaining restrictions, while the mainland China should use the city as a model to herald its own eventual return to normalcy.
Covid controls: PCR testing in Xi’an, China, December 2021 (Credit: canghai76 / Shutterstock.com)
China and Hong Kong have held firm on their restrictive approaches to Covid-19, casting them even more as outliers in a world that is rapidly opening up as the pandemic recedes. First, in a two-hour “work report” to the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) delivered on October 16, General Secretary Xi Jinping reaffirmed that China would remain steadfast in pursuing its hardline “dynamic zero-Covid policy”. Three days later, the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR) Chief Executive John Lee Ka-chiu seemed to take his cue from Xi in a policy address that failed to deliver a roadmap for the SAR’s return to normalcy, despite high expectations that he would do so.
Both Lee and his boss Xi seemed to be going against the tide of the inevitable. Zero Covid, as practiced in China, is simply not sustainable, as it threatens day to day and week to week the fundamentals of what has been an engine of global economic growth. Something has to give, as Hong Kong’s experience has amply demonstrated. Comparing the SAR to the mainland may seem inappropriate, given the difference in geographic size and population, but in terms of lifting restrictions and testing protocols, Hong Kong could serve as a valuable reference for the mainland.
Since then, Hong Kong has been taking baby steps towards reopening, reducing and then finally eliminating at the end of September mandatory hotel quarantine for all arrivals. That requirement, along with continuing compulsory testing and the possibility of forced isolation in a camp, had been a key factor in raising questions around the world about the city’s status as an international financial center and regional business hub, especially as perceived rival Singapore was moving quickly to relax its rules. Lee has persistently denied that he and his government have been “lying flat” on Covid, arguing that he is committed to fighting the virus. But he is also a realist. Since taking office on June 30, his government has been easing controls piecemeal, switching from a strategy aimed at containing the virus to focusing on mitigating its impact.
Hong Kong’s tardiness in the delivery of relief has frustrated its residents, many of whom had decamped to other places such as Singapore, Taiwan or countries where they have alternative residence for the sake of their work or their children’s education. Even so, Beijing would do well to use the SAR’s experience as a guide for how to manage a face-saving retreat from its draconian policy that has been marked by frequent lockdowns of factories, businesses, city blocks and even entire municipalities. Under zero Covid, life for the mainland’s 1.4 billion people has become at the very least disrupted and at worst precarious as they are subjected to mass quarantine regimes, travel restrictions, routine Covid testing, and in some cases, difficulty accessing daily necessities such as food and water. These hardships have triggered rare open but limited protests in cities including in the capital Beijing just days before the Party Congress opened.
The mainland could use Hong Kong as a pilot for the nation and a showcase of its own intentions to eventually reopen to the world. Creative use of the “one country, two systems” principle, which was written into the CCP constitution, would offer a valuable model and effective pathway for a soft exit from zero Covid.
In his address, Hong Kong Chief Executive Lee’s perfunctory recitation of platitudes on Covid-19 control signified that the government is unlikely to lift restrictions on social life and public health monitoring anytime soon. While Inbound international travelers are no longer subjected to hotel quarantine (at their own expense), they are still banned from going to public places such as restaurants or bars for three days of “medical surveillance”. They are also asked to take rapid antigen tests (which may be self administered) daily for seven days (a requirement that appears not to be enforced) and four PCR tests on arrival and over the succeeding seven days. Those found to be infected and their “close contacts” still need to go into compulsory isolation for a week.
Yet overwhelming scientific evidence now shows that such mandates have become outdated. Omicron has been a game changer for the pandemic around the world in terms of transmissibility and the effectiveness of existing treatments. Control strategies need to catch up with the fast-moving virus, instead of being stuck in the pre-Omicron past.
Three years into the pandemic, the world has learned a lot about Covid-19. Researchers at the two leading universities in Hong Kong have contributed to the global scholarship on the virus. While Hong Kong may have lost some of its international luster after a year of street protests in 2019 followed by nearly three years of the pandemic, the SAR has remained a more open society than the mainland. In spite of the National Security Law which drew a vague red line on freedom of expression since its implementation over two years ago, many among the public, most notably the business sector and the scientific community, have been vocal in their calls to abolish most or all of the non-pharmaceutical Covid control measures. Citizens have also been outspoken on social media on pandemic matters which have deeply affected all residents, the majority of whom refrained from traveling because of the return quarantine requirement.
Confronted by inconvenient scientific truths, the government has tried to control the communications of Hong Kong’s most prominent Covid-19 researchers. But the scientists have found different ways to put their views across to the government and the public. While they may have differed over the extent and pace of opening up, they now agree that Covid-19 has become endemic in Hong Kong and that the time for opening up is now.
By now, over 95 percent of Hong Kong’s population should have either two doses of the BioNTech/Pfizer or Sinovac vaccine plus natural infection or three vaccine doses due to the fifth and the sixth waves of infection over the first nine months of this year, says microbiologist Professor Yuen Kwok-yung of The University of Hong Kong. With an estimated 4 million to 5 million people (over half the SAR’s population) acquiring natural immunity via infection, hybrid immunity is well established in the community. The death rate has dropped sixfold from its height in the fifth wave to about 0.1 percent during the moderate surge in the latter days of the summer (mid-September).
The Hong Kong public is ready to deal with low levels of infection in the community, now hovering at 5,000 to 6,000 new cases a day, having learned from living with the pandemic over the past three years, carrying on through the ups and downs, and dealing with restrictions that remain among the most onerous in the world (save for the mainland). It has become common knowledge that vaccination does not block infection but will prevent death and serious illness. The availability of anti-viral drugs is another formidable defense. The public has come to know how to cope with the infections as they come. They are ready to move on. It is the government, which has been trying hard to hew to the motherland’s approach, that is dragging its heels.
Since the start of fifth wave of infections in February, Hong Kong has been caught in the dilemma of prioritizing opening to the world versus getting mainland authorities to ease border travel restrictions from Hong Kong. Until recently, the SAR administration has followed Beijing’s lead – to a point. Abandoning the hotel quarantine requirement on September 26 was a signal that Hong Kong felt freer to go its own way. As international pressure has built up and negotiations with the mainland have stalled, John Lee, the former senior police officer chosen by China to take the helm in the city, is well positioned to take bolder measures to move away from zero Covid.
So far, besides moving on quarantine measures, he has taken small steps, either by deliberate choice or under the force of circumstances. In addition to easing rules for international travel to and from Hong Kong, he has also given small concessions to the organizers of the international Rugby Sevens tournament and the global finance conference that are scheduled for early November, designed as reopening “parties” for the SAR. After first banning food in the stands, the government is now allowing spectators at the rugby matches to eat as well as drink. Finance bigwigs who fly in will be able to meet clients or have meals in private rooms. And if any VIP arrives infected, that person will not be isolated and will be allowed to leave town. Public clamor and private lobbying prodded Hong Kong authorities into making these sensible arrangements, though they have sparked questions about privileges accorded the elite. If this opening up goes well, Lee and his administration may be emboldened to take more initiatives to show mainland authorities and the world what Hong Kong can lift Covid controls without compromising the mainland’s defenses.
Given the opacity of politics and policy making in the mainland, it is difficult to discern how China might proceed down its own path to reopening. It has been letting more visitors into the country and has eased arrival quarantine requirements (now at 10 days in a randomly assigned hotel). Now that Xi Jinping was confirmed for a third term as China’s leader at the CCP National Congress, there are indications that Beijing is preparing to shift away from zero Covid. Six ministries and departments including the powerful National Reform and Development Commission (NDRC) called on officials around the country to facilitate cross-border business travel. According to reports, the mainland may soon trim arrival quarantine to seven days. But China appears unlikely to relax its restrictions significantly until after a new government takes office in March next year (now that the CCP Politburo and Politburo Standing Committee lineups have been decided) and possibly not even until 2024.
The mainland can look to Hong Kong to see how such measures can be taken without jeopardizing public health. In a Bumingbai podcast on the science of Covid-19 hosted by Wall Street Journal China correspondent Li Yuan, Professor Jin Dong-yan of the School of Biomedical Sciences in the Faculty of Medicine of The University of Hong Kong called on authorities to “respect science and facts”. He also called for an end to the demonization of Covid-19 in a way that instills fear among the public. Citing the example of the great influenza in 1918, he said that scientific evidence has shown that the virus has become endemic in two or three years, as would have been expected. “This is a natural law that could not be changed by human will,” Jin explained.
That is precisely how Hong Kong and China will fully defeat the pandemic – not by the force of human will or a cat-and-mouse battle of control – but with science, empathy and a well-informed and supportive public.
Chan, Yuen-ying. (March 24, 2022) “China’s Covid-19 Conundrum: Stress Test for the Zero-Covid Strategy”, AsiaGlobal Online, Asia Global Institute, The University of Hong Kong.
Hung, Ivan Fan-ngai; Lung, David Christopher; Sridhar, Siddharth; Yuen, Kwok-yung. (July 15, 2022) “Beyond Hong Kong’s Covid-19 Fifth Wave: Coping with the Virus”, AsiaGlobal Online, Asia Global Institute, The University of Hong Kong.
Lung, David Christopher; Sridhar, Siddharth; and Yuen, Kwok-yung. (March 17, 2022) “Riding Out Hong Kong’s Omicron Storm: The Consequences of Inaction”, AsiaGlobal Online, Asia Global Institute, The University of Hong Kong.
The University of Hong Kong