As Covid-19 rages across Hong Kong at the start of a sensitive political year for China and its leader Xi Jinping, Beijing is determined not to be embarrassed and undermined as it was by the often-violent protests that rocked the city in 2019.
In the past week, since Xi told the city its “overriding mission” was to control the worsening crisis, Hong Kong has stepped up measures, including plans for mass testing buttressed by equipment, testing vehicles and personnel from the mainland.
Some advisers to China’s government say Beijing fears that unless Hong Kong contains the virus and prevents a lot of people from suffering, the city could see a return to the instability of 2019 when anti-government protests posed a major crisis for Xi.
“Beijing understands there are still a lot of anti-government, anti-China forces in Hong Kong which may be waiting for an opportunity to come back,” Lau Siu-kai, an adviser to the Chinese government, said.
“If the epidemic spills over from Hong Kong into the mainland, particularly Guangdong, then it will become an issue of national security for the central government,” Lau added.
As the Covid-19 crisis grows, Hong Kong-based mainland officials including the head of China’s liaison office, Luo Huining, have appealed to the territory’s tycoons to provide financial and logistical support.
‘Less Coherent’ Definition
Mainland construction teams are now rushing to build a 10,000-bed temporary isolation centre on an outlying island.
Lau said part of the problem was that while China’s national security ambit encompasses many sectors including public health, Hong Kong’s definition of national security had been “less coherent”.
That has led city officials to underestimate the risks, political and otherwise, spilling onto a national level.
Since Covid-19 emerged in late 2019 in Wuhan, China has contained the outbreak with aggressive measures including keeping its borders nearly shut, an effort that is exacting rising economic costs.
Those methods are harder to implement in Hong Kong, an international financial hub known for cramped living quarters in high-rise buildings and a population that can be recalcitrant when it comes to complying with government orders.
- Reuters, with additional editing by George Russell