Xi's trip to Hong Kong in doubt after city's top officials get Covid-19

The trip was expected to be President Xi Jinping's first outside mainland China since January 2020. PHOTO: REUTERS

HONG KONG (BLOOMBERG) - President Xi Jinping's rumoured visit to Hong Kong to mark the city's 25th anniversary of Chinese rule was cast into doubt, after top officials in the city were infected with Covid-19.

Two senior members of incoming Chief Executive John Lee's Cabinet – including his No. 2 – have tested positive for the virus, the government revealed in a Thursday (June 23) statement.

Mr Lee and his government are due to be sworn in on July 1, at a ceremony that the Chinese leader was widely tipped to attend.

While Mr Xi’s visit has never been confirmed, it’s been the practice for China’s leaders to attend the swearing in since 1997. Mr Xi last visited five years ago when Mrs Carrie Lam became chief executive.

The infections come as the city takes a more liberal approach toward the virus than the mainland since an outbreak earlier this year swept through the 7.4 million population.

Hong Kong reported 1,522 new cases on Thursday, compared with 44 for the whole of mainland China.

If Mr Xi didn’t come it may show Hong Kong failed to do a good enough job to manage its Covid-19 situation, said Assistant Professor Dongshu Liu, who specialises in Chinese politics at the City University of Hong Kong.  

Local officials attending the July 1 celebrations are expected to enter a week-long "closed-loop" arrangement that would confine them to their homes and workplace, without use of public transport, culminating in one night of hotel quarantine, the South China Morning Post previously reported, citing sources.  

"If more officials get infected, it’s probably more embarrassing and awkward than anything," Assistant Prof Dongshu said. "After all, amid all the restrictions and measures in Hong Kong, the people who eventually are infected are them. In the long-term, if society uses these incidents to make fun of politicians, their authority will be undermined." 

Mainland Affairs Secretary Erick Tsang, who keeps his post in the next government, and incoming Chief Secretary Eric Chan are now both in isolation. Mr Chan has been isolating since June 21, the statement said, after his wife tested positive for the virus.

Both Mr Chan and Mr Tsang went to work last on Monday and Wednesday, respectively. Permanent Secretary for Development Ricky Lau is also infected.

If Mr Lee and outgoing Chief Executive Mrs Lam test positive it could derail the entire July 1 handover celebration.

Mr Lee has so far tested negative, according to a spokesperson for the office of the Chief Executive-elect.

“The Chief Executive-elect last met Mr Erick Tsang and Mr Eric Chan several days ago. Mr Lee took a PCR test on Wednesday and the result was negative.”

Mrs Lam last had a “brief” face-to-face conversation with Mr Chan on Monday, according to a government spokesperson, adding that relevant distancing measures were followed and as such Mrs Lam isn’t considered a close contact.

She has had no direct contact with Mr Tsang for over a week, the spokesperson said. Mrs Lam tests daily and the most recent result was negative, they said.

Beijing is "deeply concerned" by the infections and worried the closed-loop system they had entered to prevent any infection risk to top Chinese leaders at next Friday's event was not working, the South China Morning Post reported, citing an unidentified person. It's unclear how this development would affect a state leader's visit, the source added.

Beijing has not yet confirmed who will travel to Hong Kong for the event.

Mr Xi hasn’t left mainland China since January 2020, when he visited neighbouring Myanmar at the outset of the pandemic. Since then, the mainland has stuck to its zero-Covid policy of trying to eliminate all cases with lockdowns and mass testing. 

Since Mr Xi’s last visit, Hong Kong has seen historic anti-government protests in 2019 that pushed back against China’s increasing influence on the city, resulting in Beijing imposing a sweeping national security law that has since crushed dissent.

Mr Xi then revamped the city’s electoral system to ensure only Communist Party patriots can rule.

Chinese state media has recently trumpeted Mr Xi’s “deep affection” for the city. Communist Party mouthpiece People’s Daily published a 2,000-word article on Monday entitled “Hong Kong’s Development is Always Close To My Heart,” highlighting Mr Xi’s speeches throughout his decade in power on the city’s progress.

The article was republished on Tuesday on the front page of Beijing-controlled newspaper Ta Kung Pao.

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