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Beijing grows frustrated at Hong Kong’s handling of pandemic

After remoulding the media, education, civil society and electoral system in the wake of the Hong Kong protests in 2019, Beijing has forced the territory to embrace its zero-covid policies.

It is proving tough for the city’s economy. In concert with Beijing’s move to shut off its border with Hong Kong, the city’s connection cords to both China and the rest of the world have effectively been cut as international travelers, subject to a two-week quarantine, have slowed to a dribble.

Danny Lau whose organization represents the city’s small- to medium-sized businesses, said his members “cannot see the end of this black tunnel”.

But apart from the common legal system left over from colonial days and a convertible currency, there is one other area where Hong Kong is still distinguishable from the mainland: its leniency when officials breach rules.

An outbreak of about 150 cases of the Delta variant across the border in Guangdong in August left 11 officials out of work, in one example of the dozens of Chinese officials disciplined over flare-ups of Covid-19 in the country.

In Hong Kong, however, the Covid outbreaks have been, officials have by and large stayed put during the pandemic, even now with cases rising in the city. Last month, after the first community Omicron cases, it emerged that 15 officials had attended a karaoke birthday party in breach of government rules. Guests subsequently tested positive.

Only one official, Caspar Tsui, the home affairs secretary who not only partied with guests but also failed to use the government’s compulsory tracing app, took the opportunity to leave before he was pushed. Two others received a verbal warning and the rest were let off without consequences.

Without the pressures of being monitored by the disciplinary bodies Chinese officials are subject to, analysts say Hong Kong officials may now face less accountability mechanisms than those experienced by their mainland counterparts.

“Chinese accountability in the mainland is even stronger than[in Hong Kong]. . . mainland officials are required to curb Covid spread strictly without errors, ”said Sonny Lo, a veteran political commentator. “[Hong Kong] accountability is loose. . . HK officials’ accountability depends more on ministerial resignation as a personal act. ”

This can also mean trouble for Hong Kong as it navigates its relations with the mainland, and tries to reopen its mutual border in the future. Regional officials are distrustful of the Hong Kong government’s approach to Covid in part because their officials do not face the sack, according to one mainland Chinese official. “It’s all about trust,” the official told the Financial Times.

There is also a question of whether the difference in official discipline will prompt the mainland to become more interventionist. Beijing officials last weekend seized more direct control of the city’s virus response as its most serious outbreak yet threatens to bring down its Covid suppression strategy. (Hong Kong has reported more than 40,199 cases since the start of the year, more than it did in the past two years combined).

“[Beijing] will put together a big team to help. . . effectively take over anti-epidemic operations. The [Hong Kong government’s] efforts in the past two years have been an obvious failure, ”Regina Ip, a pro-Beijing politician, said.

Hong Kong authorities are also facing harsher criticism from the Chinese state media and semi-official state think-tanks which accuse officials of failing to implement the zero-covid policy with less zeal than those on the mainland.

While Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s leader, has ruled out a citywide lockdown, the city is weighing a move to mass test the entire population of 7.4mn.

With tensions between Hong Kong and the mainland increasingly apparent, some local establishment figures have come out in favor of a truce.

Ronny Tong, who sits on Lam’s cabinet, would not comment on differences with how officials are held to account and urged the government’s critics to stop the blame game. “This is not the right mentality to fight a pandemic.”

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