BEIJING - As Hong Kong grapples with its most serious Covid-19 outbreak yet, the city's delegates to China's largest political gathering of the year, the Two Sessions, have been told they will have to quarantine before entering the mainland, ending speculation that they might be barred from physically attending the meetings.
Previously, special arrangements had been made for deputies, as delegates are referred to in the Chinese system, allowing for quarantine-free travel between Hong Kong and Beijing.
But according to a notice sent to delegates on Friday (Feb 18), those attending the meetings this year will have to quarantine for seven days in Shenzhen, the southern Chinese city bordering Hong Kong, before being allowed to travel to Beijing for the meetings, which begin on March 4 and March 5.
The annual meetings of the National People's Congress (NPC) and the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) - collectively referred to as the Two Sessions, or lianghui - bring together lawmakers and representatives from across the country, including the special administrative regions of Hong Kong and Macau.
Mainland China's borders are still largely shut to outsiders and anyone entering is subject to a minimum 14-day quarantine. Those entering Beijing need to have been in the country for 21 days before being allowed into the capital city.
"I will be leaving for Shenzhen this Saturday (Feb 19) where I will quarantine for seven days before heading to Beijing to attend the (NPC) Standing Committee meeting," said Mr Tam Yiu Chung, Hong Kong's only representative to China's top lawmaking body.
The Standing Committee meeting on Feb 27 will largely focus on preparatory work for the full NPC meeting beginning on March 5. China's top political advisory committee, the CPPCC, will start gathering from March 4.
"Of course, because I'm a member of the (NPC) Standing Committee, our arrangements are different from the rest," he told The Straits Times.
This year, the Chinese Parliament is expected to vote on a law involving the picking of NPC deputies from Hong Kong and Macau. In 2020, the body had pushed forward on a national security law and last year voted on changes to Hong Kong's electoral system.
But as Covid-19 cases started to climb in Hong Kong, with several involving senior officials, concerns emerged that the mainland, in strict pursuit of a zero-Covid-19 policy, might stop Hong Kong's officials from travelling to Beijing.
President Xi Jinping had also earlier this week issued rare instructions for Hong Kong officials to put a lid on the virus.
An online briefing on Tuesday, which was to review the past year's work of delegates, further sparked speculation of a possible travel ban, with many seeing it as a "dress rehearsal" for attending the meeting virtually.
Hong Kong has 36 deputies at the NPC and about 200 more in the CPPCC.
Deputies from both the NPC and CPPCC whom ST spoke to have said physically attending the meetings are important because it is part of the political process.
"It is important for us to be there because it shows solidarity, and that the virus is under control," said Professor Wong Kam Fai, a member of the CPPCC, who confirmed that he will be leaving for Shenzhen on Feb 24 to quarantine for a week before travelling to Beijing.