Hong Kong's leader Carrie Lam goes quiet as city's Covid-19 crisis deepens

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam last gave a major briefing on Feb 22, 2022. PHOTO: AFP

HONG KONG(BLOOMBERG) - Since taking office five years ago, Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam has held a steady stream of news conferences.

Now, as the city tops the world in Covid-19 deaths, she has gone without a briefing since visiting mainland China in November.

Mrs Lam last gave a major briefing on Feb 22, when she announced that every resident would be tested for Covid-19 three times in March, sending shock waves through a city that had so far largely avoided a major outbreak.

Since then, Hong Kong has recorded more than 1,300 Covid-19 deaths, with about 90 per cent of fatalities among unvaccinated people.

Cases have surged to more than 25,000 a day.

Mrs Lam's withdrawal from public view underscores concern about how Hong Kong will be governed in the wake of Beijing's purge of the pro-democracy opposition.

The city now lacks both the checks of a democratic system and the centralised control the Communist Party enjoys on the mainland, said Dr Dongshu Liu, an assistant professor specialising in Chinese politics at the City University of Hong Kong.

"It's like the Covid-19 situation - you either go the mainland style or the Western style and pay the cost either way. But you get something," Dr Liu said.

"Hong Kong is trapped in between, and it's not effective."

Mrs Lam planned to preside over the city's daily virus briefing as soon as Wednesday (March 9) amid complaints of confusing information about the government's Covid-19 response, news site HK01 reported late Tuesday, citing an unidentified person.

Health officials normally hold the briefing at 4.30pm each day to announce the latest case counts and other developments.

Still unanswered are questions over when and how mass testing will take place, and whether confirmed cases can quarantine at home.

People queueing for Covid-19 test kits in Sham Shui Po, Hong Kong, on Feb 27, 2022. PHOTO: AFP

Local media reports saying there will be an accompanying lockdown have sparked panic buying that's emptied supermarket shelves. The Chief Executive's Office said in an emailed response that Mrs Lam has a "variety of means" to disseminate information, citing a 10-minute video message on Feb 28 and a meeting with reporters on the mainland Chinese border on March 2.

Ms Lam's office has not replied to Bloomberg News requests for details of her schedule.

"We are now faced with a merciless epidemic and critical situation," Mrs Lam said in the Feb 28 video.

"But with the staunch support of our country, I have no doubt that Hong Kong will be able to ride out the storm again and win this battle, so that our people could resume their normal lives."

In mainland China, local officials have been fired for flare-ups that jeopardise President Xi Jinping's core Covid-19 strategy of keeping cases near zero through lockdowns, mass testing and border curbs.

In those cases, the central government is usually depicted as the white knight pushing out lower-level underperformers.

Politics are more complicated in Hong Kong, where more than million people marched in 2019 to oppose Beijing's rule and demand Mrs Lam's resignation.

Partially empty shelves are seen in a supermarket in Hong Kong on March 4, 2022. PHOTO: REUTERS

Ousting Mrs Lam could be seen as a recognition that the central government's management of the city has failed.

That raises questions of whether Mr Xi will bring back Mrs Lam for a second five-year term after she last month postponed her own election to concentrate on fighting the virus.

Moreover, Mr Xi cannot just bring in a trusted firefighter from another province: He has to pick someone from Hong Kong, and the choices are limited.

While members of her Cabinet attend annual parliamentary sessions in Beijing this week, Mrs Lam has put her regular Tuesday briefing on hold until March 15.

Mrs Lam held two press briefings a week earlier this year after Omicron started to spread, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

In recent weeks, thousands of expatriates have fled, many fearful of being ordered into isolation units - potentially without their children - during the mass testing.

Local schools revised their semester dates to accommodate the drive. But it's still unclear whether the operation will even happen. One report in the Ming Pao newspaper Tuesday suggested the whole mass-testing operation could be scrapped.

"It is unusual for the leader of a city or a state to disappear in the midst of a crisis," said Dr Steve Tsang, director of Soas University of London's China Institute.

"Leadership requires presence and ability to project direction and reassurance - absence makes this impossible."

Mrs Lam's muted response contrasts with mainland officials' regular comments on the Covid-19 crisis.

Chinese Vice-Premier Han Zheng, who oversees Hong Kong affairs, emphasised the central government's commitment to helping the city. The country's top official in charge of Covid-19 crises, Vice-Premier Sun Chunlan, has weighed in via video link from Beijing, HK01 reported.

While that raises questions about whether Mrs Lam is still calling the shots, Mr Xia Baolong, director of the Beijing agency responsible for Hong Kong, made it clear Thursday that responsibility remained with her.

"Top Hong Kong officials must have the courage to shoulder arduous responsibility, and do a good job in organisation and leadership," he told a meeting of mainland officials, the South China Morning Post reported.

Hong Kong has a self-imposed deadline for containing the outbreak: May 8.

Hong Kong has seen a recent surge in Covid-19 cases, with more than 25,000 cases being recorded a day. PHOTO: REUTERS

That's the date that a committee of 1,500 largely pro-Beijing electors will meet to select a new leader after Mrs Lam invoked emergency powers to delay the vote.

Mrs Lam has not said whether she'll seek a second term, but with morgues at near capacity and virus cases in some 750 elderly care homes, any campaign is dependent on her ability to turn things around.

Beijing could still decide to keep her. She remained loyal to central authorities during the mass anti-China protests in 2019, an act that saw her sanctioned by the US government.

A year later, she helped China achieve its long-term goal of putting a national security law on Hong Kong's books.

"In a regular accountable system she would be removed," Dr Liu said.

"But Beijing is still saying, 'Okay, Carrie isn't perfect, but she's proved in past years to be okay to do the job'. Where is the alternative? Maybe the alternative is riskier."

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