Coronavirus Hong Kong: Xi Jinping puts city government on notice, instructs it to bear ‘main responsibility’ to contain spiralling health crisis, focus on social stability
- Xi asks Vice-Premier Han Zheng to relay to city leader Carrie Lam the president’s ‘concern about the pandemic situation’, pro-Beijing newspapers report
- Beijing to upgrade oversight by establishing top-level coordinating group to ensure effective anti-pandemic work
In a reflection of the mounting concern among China’s top leadership over Hong Kong’s predicament, pro-Beijing newspapers on Wednesday reported that Xi had instructed the local government to take all necessary measures to protect the lives and safety of the city’s residents and ensure overall social stability.
Ta Kung Pao and Wen Wei Po reported that Xi had asked Vice-Premier Han Zheng, the top state leader overseeing the city’s affairs, to relay to Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor the president’s “concern about the pandemic situation in the city and his care for Hong Kong residents”.
On a significant note, Beijing will upgrade oversight by establishing a top-level coordinating group to ensure effective anti-pandemic work. The group will be led by the State Council’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office as well as the National Health Commission, and will involve Beijing authorities and experts, as well as the Guangdong and local governments.
A mainland Chinese source involved in the arrangement said the new group would comprise No 1 officials from relevant government ministries and agencies reporting directly to Han so that authoritative and faster decisions could be made.
The reports cited Xi as speaking in his capacity as general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, which is spearheading the country’s battle against the pandemic – underscoring Beijing’s response to Hong Kong’s crisis as a matter of national importance.
Xi stressed that Hong Kong “must earnestly take the main responsibility, and make it the overriding priority to stabilise and control the epidemic as soon as possible”.
“Authorities must mobilise all forces and resources that can be mobilised, take all necessary measures and protect Hong Kong people’s lives and health, as well as ensure Hong Kong’s social stability,” the president was quoted as saying.
“The relevant central and local authorities must fully support and assist the Hong Kong government in doing its anti-epidemic work well.”
The chief executive responded in a statement expressing her “heartfelt gratitude” to Xi, while conceding that local authorities were overwhelmed by the surging fifth wave of the pandemic.
“The rapid development of the pandemic has put Hong Kong in an extremely severe situation. The situation has also greatly exceeded the Hong Kong government’s ability to respond,” Lam said.
“At this critical moment, we must give full play to the advantages of ‘one country, two systems’. Regarding this, I have submitted a report to the central government and put forward specific requests for assistance as soon as possible.”
Vice-Premier Han told Lam’s government to “firmly implement Xi’s instructions”, and directed relevant authorities in Beijing and Guangdong to handle requests made by Hong Kong.
They included boosting testing capacity, procuring rapid test kits and other medical equipment, supporting the construction of isolation and medical facilities, ensuring the supply of necessities such as fresh food, and sending coronavirus experts to Hong Kong to help.
Guangdong’s party committee and the provincial government also met to discuss the situation in Hong Kong and work out plans to help the city by ensuring the flow of supplies.
In a joint statement, local delegates to the National People’s Congress and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference also pledged to mobilise “all available forces and resources” to combat the outbreak and ensure stability.
Tam Yiu-chung, Hong Kong’s sole delegate to China’s top legislative body, said Xi’s instructions signalled that the city should take advantage of resources and manpower from the mainland, especially Guangdong.
“Xi is showing his concern and care for the city, thus the chief executive and all civil servants should be mobilised to fight against the pandemic as soon as possible … so that we can return to normal life and reopen the border soon,” he said.
The city confirmed 4,285 new infections on Wednesday, taking the total to 30,955 with 235 related deaths, including that of a three-year-old girl whose case has sparked an outpouring of public sympathy. Another 7,000 preliminary-positive infections were also reported.
Analysts interpreted Xi’s message as a strong reminder to Hong Kong officials that they would have to work harder and do a better job of tackling the public health crisis.
Lau Siu-kai, a vice-president of semi-official think tank the Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macau Studies, characterised Xi’s message as “supervision and instruction”, saying the failure to control the local outbreak would not only affect the city’s interests, but the overall development of the country.
“The central government would not publicly criticise the Hong Kong government, but obviously Beijing is not satisfied over the hesitation and delays of Lam’s administration in controlling the pandemic. It is rare that Xi asks you to take full responsibility, meaning the government must act immediately,” Lau said.
“Beijing is afraid that people’s fears and uncertainty will turn to anger, causing political instability again, while the delay in resuming cross-border travel means Hong Kong is again delayed in integrating with the overall national development plan.”
Mainland academic Tian Feilong said Xi’s unusual move to issue instructions in his capacity as party general secretary rather than president underscored the utmost importance Beijing was attaching to Hong Kong’s anti-pandemic efforts. The message amounted to criticism of the local government’s failure to get a grip on the situation after more than two years of battling the disease, he added.
“There is also a possibility of holding the Hong Kong government accountable in future,” the Beihang University associate law professor said. “The lingering pandemic and rising public discontent are threatening the fundamentals of Hong Kong’s prosperity and stability.”
Tian suggested Hong Kong should take extraordinary measures, such as imposing lockdowns for compulsory testing citywide.
“The chief executive should learn from the mainland’s experience in tackling the pandemic,” he added.
Business groups welcomed Xi’s input, with the Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce saying the president’s support would boost the city’s ability to contain the outbreak, and calling for more people to be vaccinated.
The Chinese General Chamber of Commerce described Xi’s instructions as a shot in the arm, while the Chinese Manufacturers’ Association welcomed them as a morale booster reflecting his level of concern for Hong Kong.