Plan to open border with mainland China sparks fears in Hong Kong

Concerns grow that visitors will bring virus with them and use up finite supplies of fever medicines and vaccines
By Cheryl Tung and Jojo Man for RFA Cantonese, Chen Zifei for RFA Mandarin
2022.12.28
Plan to open border with mainland China sparks fears in Hong Kong An arriving traveler speaks with a staff member wearing personal protective equipment on the Hong Kong side of the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge, Dec. 23, 2022.
Credit: Reuters

Hong Kong leader John Lee on Wednesday announced plans to open the city's internal border with the rest of China by mid-January, sparking fears that the current wave of mass COVID-19 infections sweeping the country will engulf the city, sparking a run on medical resources.

"I'm very thankful to the Central People's Government for making the direction that we will resume normal travel with the mainland step by step ... with a view to full opening for normalization," Lee told journalists in Hong Kong.

"That is what we are doing now in close discussion with the [mainland Chinese] authorities ... for implementation before the middle of January," Lee said.

The government also announced the lifting of all COVID-19 restrictions from Thursday, including vaccine passports, limits on public gatherings and compulsory quarantine measures.

However, it made no mention of any mitigation measures for visitors from China, who are already being subjected to quarantine, temperature surveillance and testing requirements by some countries as the country lifts bans on overseas travel.

The announcements come after Lee made his annual work report to Chinese Communist Party leader Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang last week.

Predicted surge

Thousands of customs, immigration and police officers will be sent to checkpoints to manage a predicted surge in traffic as the border between Hong Kong and the mainland reopens, according to the Communist Party-backed Wen Wei Po newspaper.

The move has generated concerns in Hong Kong over a potential rush of arrivals from mainland China as people there seek imported vaccines and basic medicines amid a massive surge in COVID-19 infections that has followed the lifting of the strict zero-COVID policy.

Gabriel Choi, former president of the Hong Kong Medical Council, said the opening of the border will likely ramp up pressure on Hong Kong's healthcare providers as visitors seek imported vaccines and over-the-counter medicines that are in short supply in mainland China.

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Children play at a park in Hong Kong, China, on Wednesday, Dec. 28, 2022. Credit: Reuters

"They will be able to buy up medicines and get vaccinated, and then when Hong Kongers need the jabs in the face of this new wave of the virus, they won't be able to get them," Choi warned. "Things are a mess in mainland China right now, and now they are trying to shift some of that pressure onto Hong Kong."

Social media posts showing people how to get access to free vaccination in Hong Kong with imported jabs – not generally available in mainland China – have been circulating in recent days on WeChat and Xiaohongshu, with local healthcare services bracing themselves for a massive increase in demand.

Money to be made

A Hong Kong hospital doctor of more than 20 years' experience who gave only the surname Cheung said there is plenty of money to be made by the private healthcare sector in offering imported COVID-19 jabs to well-heeled visitors from mainland China.

"Hong Kong currently has enough vaccines, and the government sells some of them to private hospitals," Cheung said, adding that only the government is allowed to procure the vaccines.

"The problem is that the Hong Kong government hasn't given out any guidelines on how to manage mainland Chinese visitors coming to get vaccinated in Hong Kong, like specifying whether they will get them free of charge or for a fee," she said.

"This may mean a high volume of Chinese visitors coming to get vaccinated."

Recent information published by the Hong Kong Society of Hospital Pharmacists has indicated that there are only enough supplies to vaccinate the city's 7.5 million population.

Current affairs commentator Jason Poon said the government has never made public the amount of money it has poured into vaccine procurement.

"Hong Kong's financial situation isn't very good, with a fiscal deficit of more than 200 billion Hong Kong dollars," Poon told Radio Free Asia. "It's possible that the vaccines cost more than 200 Hong Kong dollars per dose."

"[This kind of] generosity to mainland Chinese will definitely arouse public resentment in Hong Kong, which can't afford it. The government should ... charge people who come to Hong Kong to get vaccinated," he said.

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Hong Kong Chief Executive John Lee [center right] stands next to Chinese President Xi Jinping [center] during a dinner at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit in Bangkok, Thailand in Nov. 2022. One commentator says Lee's administration is now dancing to Beijing's tune. Credit: Hong Kong Government Information Services via AP

Another commentator, Sang Pu, said the authorities used to prioritize the needs of Hong Kong residents over those of mainland Chinese, including acting to prevent women from mainland China from giving birth in Hong Kong hospitals in order to secure a permanent residence ID card for their child.

Now, Lee's administration is dancing entirely to Beijing's tune, he said, adding that the political motive for opening the border with Hong Kong was "to fully integrate Hong Kong into the disaster unfolding in China."

"I can guarantee that if you were to ask the people of Hong Kong today, to put it to a referendum, they wouldn't vote to open the borders," Sang said. "But John Lee is showing total obedience to the instructions he is receiving from the Communist Party Central Committee."

"He is opening the borders and letting the outbreak in, creating great fear in Hong Kong, but public sentiment is no longer being reflected by the Legislative Council, and that is the tragedy of the Hong Kong people," he said.

‘Tsunami-like’

Respiratory medicine expert Leung Chi-chiu said current mutations of the Omicron variant circulating in mainland China shouldn't be taken lightly.

"If they spread rapidly, these mutations can become the dominant variant in ... a short period of time, or fuel high reinfection rates among people who have had it before," Leung told Radio Free Asia.

"In some populations there is exponential growth, meaning that infections will double every two or three days, which could produce a tsunami-like outbreak [here in Hong Kong]," he said. "These are the [main] risks to be wary of."

China Centers for Disease Control and Prevention virologist Xu Wenbo said on Dec. 20 that more than 130 sub-lineages of Omicron have been detected in China during the past three months, with 50 of those emerging all at once.

Some, including BQ.1 and XBB, are characterized by increased transmissibility and immune escape capabilities, Xu said.

Hong Kong customs official Ida Ng said painkillers and other pharmaceuticals are currently subject to export permit requirements before they can be taken out of Hong Kong.

"Painkillers and other pharmaceutical products are under control and require an import and export permit issued by the Department of Health before being taken out of Hong Kong," Ng said in comments quoted by The Standard newspaper. "However, it is acceptable if a passenger brings a reasonable amount - like one or two packs - for his/her own use."

She said the authorities are expecting more than 800,000 crossings a day at all ports and airports once the border reopens, on a par with volumes last seen in 2019.

Translated by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Malcolm Foster.

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