Illustration: Craig Stephens
John Hanzhang Ye
John Hanzhang Ye

Hong Kong-mainland border reopening: what if Covid-19 containment fails?

  • Reopening the border is a delicate process that must take into account public health, political pressures and international considerations
  • An outbreak caused by reopened borders would be a public health and political disaster for both sides, so managing such an eventuality must be part of any plan
Hong Kong’s new administration has said that reopening the border with the mainland was one of its top priorities. Chief Executive John Lee Ka-chiu also told the public that the administration is working with mainland authorities to open the border.

He said Hong Kong would seek to lower the daily number of new cases through more testing to stop local transmission. In the meantime, Lee said, efforts to reopen the mainland border would not stop the city from opening up to the rest of the world.

Now is a good time for the city to make such efforts. Local business leaders have been calling for a reopening of the mainland border for the past two years. As the mainland relaxes some of its restrictions on international travellers, appropriate measures by Hong Kong could help gain the confidence of mainland public health experts, and show that reopening the border would not threaten China’s “zero-Covid” policy.
The real problem is still how to convince mainland officials that Hong Kong will not pose a threat to public health even as the city reports around 2,000 new Covid-19 cases per day, with no sign that things will change any time soon.

Though Covid-19 appears to be moving from the pandemic phase to endemic in the city, this does not mean the number of daily new cases will naturally decline to zero. In the US, where Covid-19 is becoming endemic, there is still a significant number of new cases each day, but the mortality rate is low. Hong Kong has reached this stage.

However, the priority for mainland authorities is to avoid importing any cases. For a place where most of the population has not experienced a severe outbreak, it is hard to assess whether herd immunity has been achieved.
Therefore, for the mainland, opening the border to Hong Kong is viewed as potentially putting at risk the lives of millions of people and having to initiate Shanghai-style lockdowns again.
To avoid possible cross-border transmission after reopening, Hong Kong has a couple of options. It can could either wait until local cases have been eliminated or create a “ closed loop” system with certain local quarantine requirements, to ensure that anyone travelling to the mainland is virus-free.

But how far could such a system go? If quarantine is the only way to ensure travellers are safe, then it is no different than quarantine on the mainland, except that it could boost the local hotel industry.


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This is about more than public health – it is also about tensions between Hong Kong and the mainland. Before the Shanghai lockdown and amid the fifth wave peak, there were reports that some people had illegally travelled from Hong Kong to the mainland. As a result, mainland netizens blamed Hong Kong for bringing in cases.
Reopening the border with the mainland is thus a delicate issue. Any reports of new cases entering via Hong Kong could see tensions resurface between mainland citizens and Hongkongers.
Meanwhile, Hong Kong also needs to respond to the needs of expats and the challenges of Southeast Asian countries’ reopening. Commercial associations in Hong Kong recently called for a further relaxation of Covid-19 restrictions for overseas travellers. Discontent among expats over the continuing restrictions on international travel has been one factor in their decision about whether to stay or go.
Furthermore, Southeast Asian countries have gradually opened their doors to the world. Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore have eliminated or relaxed restrictions on international travel. Now, travelling to these places is not that different from how it was before the pandemic.


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Singapore starts ‘living with the virus’, shedding masks outdoors and allowing quarantine-free entry
Maintaining the international community’s confidence that Hong Kong will not reverse course on reopening is another issue. While the new administration has said it is committed to reopening the border, whether further measures will be taken to eliminate local cases remains unclear.
If the Hong Kong government does implement new measures, officials need to ensure that they do not undermine international confidence, sparking concern that the city would enact lockdowns or roll back current quarantine requirements. Meanwhile, the measures should be sufficient to ensure cases do not slip through to the mainland, thus gaining the approval of mainland public health experts.

The real challenge for such a scheme lies in what happens further down the line. The Omicron variant is evolving to be more transmissible and harder to detect. Hong Kong has continued to carry out local testing but, even so, it is unlikely that all cases could be identified at any one time.

A traveller may be unaware that they are carrying the virus, for example, and any testing failure before a trip to the mainland could result in them bringing in Covid-19. An outbreak caused by reopened borders would be a public health and political disaster for both sides. Therefore, how to manage such a disaster must be part of the reopening plan.

Hong Kong must reopen to the outside world, to save itself

Undoubtedly, reopening the border will attract a great number of Hong Kong residents as well as overseas Chinese seeking to travel to the mainland.

Balancing public health priorities with keeping the border open requires wisdom, negotiation and concessions from both sides. Therefore, the government needs to consider not just how to minimise the risk of cross-border virus transmission but also what to do should this plan fail.

John Hanzhang Ye is a PhD student in science and technology history at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities and also holds an MPhil degree in sociology from the Chinese University of Hong Kong