Hong Kong's Carrie Lam says not possible to reopen China border soon

Police officers manning a customs checkpoint on Chung Ying Street in Hong Kong, on the border with mainland China, on June 3, 2022. PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

HONG KONG (BLOOMBERG) - Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam said the city will not be able to reopen its China border in the short term due to the country’s different pandemic response to the rest of the world. 

“Reopening the border with the mainland is a major challenge,” she said at a Legislative Council meeting on Thursday (June 9). “I can tell you it is not possible in the short term based on our discussions from September to December last year.”

Chinese authorities told Hong Kong officials last year they needed to maintain “no local infections for a while” to reopen the border. That appears impossible anytime soon as Hong Kong tolerates hundreds of local daily Covid-19 infections per day without tightening social distancing measures, showing a clear divergence with the mainland. 

Mrs Lam said health experts told her this week they aren’t concerned by rising cases as most are mild infections and the city’s vaccination rate is increasing.

China, meanwhile, continues to send communities into lockdown over a handful of cases, as it tries to eliminate the virus, even as the rest of the world is opening up borders and living with the virus.

“It’s very clear now that most foreign countries have a different set of theories and measures against the pandemic. Hong Kong is caught in the middle," said Mrs Lam.

While it can’t open the border with the mainland, the city still imposes a mandatory seven-day hotel quarantine for arrivals from much of the world. 

The city is preparing to cocoon some 1,000 people involved in the city's July 1 handover anniversary, fuelling speculation that Chinese President Xi Jinping will attend the celebrations.

Security staff, including police officers protecting a "very, very important person," will enter the closed-loop system in readiness for hosting an unspecified Chinese state leader, the South China Morning Post reported on Wednesday evening, citing people it did not identify.

Logistics were still being finalised but one option under consideration was sending all those involved into hotel quarantine for seven days before the event, with regular Covid-19 testing, the newspaper said.

The list of individuals required to isolate was likely to grow in the coming weeks, potentially also covering ceremony attendees.

The Post reported earlier this week that Chief Executive Lam and other top Hong Kong officials - including her incoming replacement John Lee - were preparing to enter the closed loop.

Mrs Lam said it would be down to his government to work out the criteria for resuming mainland travel going forward.

“With the new administration and its discussions with China, I can’t tell if there will any room for adjustment,” she added.

The closed loop system would prevent officials from meeting "outsiders" and require them to live apart from their families, according to the newspaper, which said officials had been informed a month ago.

China has used closed-loop systems to ensure key events go ahead with minimum infection risk as the country sticks to its Covid Zero policy. Similar protocols were used this year for the Beijing Winter Olympics and the National People's Congress.

Mr Xi's attendance on July 1 would mark his first trip outside mainland China since January 2020, when he visited neighbouring Myanmar.

Since then, the mainland has stuck to a strict zero-tolerance policy that's sometimes plunged cities into lockdown over a handful of cases and all but closed the nation's borders.

Hong Kong has drifted from that strategy, resisting tightening pandemic curbs in recent weeks despite recording hundreds of cases a day.

"I believe that most Hong Kong people would agree they need to see a path to recovery," Mrs Lam said Tuesday at a press briefing, adding that "acceptability by the public" was now an important factor in pandemic decision making.

That disparity between Hong Kong and the mainland's virus policies has cast doubt over whether Mr Xi will visit on July 1, the date marking 25 years since Britain returned the city to Chinese rule and Mr Lee's first day in office.

The two hotels booked for Mr Xi's inaugural visit as president five years ago - the Grand Hyatt and the Renaissance - haven't accepted public bookings between June 28 and July 1, local media including Ming Pao have reported.

All law enforcement agencies will be mobilised for the event, officials have said.

Mrs Lam said Tuesday that the city was "looking forward" to a visit from the country's leader, but cautioned that for such a trip to go ahead conditions would need to be favourable. "I cannot tell you more," she added.

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