How Covid helped China tighten its hold on Hong Kong

Traffic is busier than usual in Lok Ma Chau, a village on Hong Kong’s northern border. Heavy-duty trucks shuttle mainland Chinese workers to and from the wetland district, where they are building a makeshift hospital to treat Covid-19 patients.

The hubbub would have been unimaginable a year or even a month ago. The Asian financial capital is separated from the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen by a winding river. But in early March, a makeshift bridge linking the two cities was erected. Satellite images show the foundations of the structure being laid days before the Hong Kong government announced the project.

Since its opening, the two-lane crossing in Hong Kong’s northernmost district has emerged as a physical manifestation of the shrinking space between Beijing and the semi-autonomous territory, and that gap has closed faster than ever during the pandemic.

Beijing’s growing presence

A former British colony, Hong Kong was returned to China in 1997 under the “one country, two systems” arrangement negotiated with Britain. The framework allowed the city to preserve rights and freedoms not afforded across the border for 50 years, enabling its rise as a global, freewheeling hub in the heart of Asia.

Yet Beijing has attempted to bring the territory under its wing since then.A visitation scheme introduced in 2003 made it easier for mainland Chinese travellers to come to Hong Kong. In 2012, with Beijing’s support, Hong Kong proposed a patriotic education curriculum, which triggered citywide protests.

Then in 2020, the national security law, a response to large-scale demonstrations that broke out in 2019, was passed by Beijing’s top legislature and enacted in Hong Kong a year later without being reviewed by local lawmakers. Scores of veteran pro-democracy activists have been arrested under the law.

But it took a pandemic – specifically, Covid-19’s highly transmissible Omicron variant – for Beijing’s presence in Hong Kong to be felt in ways like never before.

In late February, Hong Kong announced that it would invoke an emergency ordinance so the city could “draw on [the] mainland’s support” and “undertake key anti-epidemic projects at full speed”, a press release read.

At a treatment facility set up in the cavernous AsiaWorld-Expo convention centre, elderly patients are now being tended to by mainland Chinese doctors and nurses. Under the emergency laws, the medical staff were able to bypass licensing exams and registration procedures normally required for staff who aren’t trained locally. Authorities said computers for recording patient information had been changed from English to Chinese to accommodate them.

Hong Kong’s chief executive Carrie Lam has said the territory ‘cannot let existing laws stop us from doing what we should do’ during Covid. Photograph: Vincent Yu/AFP/Getty Images

Meanwhile, Hong Kong’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, announced during a coronavirus press briefing on Friday that the city would be distributing rapid test kits, face masks and a traditional Chinese medication – Lianhua Qingwen – to households, donated by the mainland.

The medication, which has been registered with the city’s pharmaceutical board, has been flagged by health authorities in Singapore and the US for being advertised with unsupported claims.

“Beijing has been trying to mould Hong Kong into another [Chinese] city,” says Lynette Ong, a political science professor at the University of Toronto. “The Covid crisis gives them a legitimate reason to do so.”

Besides the construction of a Covid-19 hospital in Lok Ma Chau, mainland China has already assisted Hong Kong with the building of five other isolation facilities for patients with mild or no symptoms. China and Hong Kong are among the last places in the world that still isolate or hospitalise Covid patients who are in a stable condition.

Infrastructure projects in Hong Kong typically involve construction firms submitting tenders to compete for billion-dollar contracts. But all of the facilities being built with mainland aid have been handed over to Chinese State Construction Engineering, a state-owned company.

At an opening ceremony for the newest centre in the northern district of Yuen Long, top Hong Kong officials stood at attention as a video of toiling construction workers, portrayed as worked-to-the-bone heroes, played before them. A song in Mandarin, instead of the Cantonese language spoken in Hong Kong, played in the background.

“The scale and speed at which these projects were finished is unprecedented,” Hong Kong’s leader Lam said at the Thursday ceremony. “This will go down in the history of Hong Kong’s Covid-19 fight.”

Lam is used to talking about the crisis in terms of conflict. “In an environment as urgent as this, we cannot let existing laws stop us from doing what we should do … this is not the mentality for fighting a war,” she said in February.

Jeffrey Wasserstrom, a history professor at the University of California, Irvine, says “there was once a chasm separating what takes place in Hong Kong from what takes place across the mainland border”. That chasm is getting smaller.

Under the national security law, spaces like independent newsrooms, universities and civil society groups have felt a chill as Beijing seeks to integrate Hong Kong further into its fold.

And as Hong Kong prepares to welcome a batch of traditional Chinese medicine practitioners to staff treatment facilities and open more isolation camps built by mainland workers, the assimilation is now playing out more publicly than ever.

“The way that Covid has been handled by the Hong Kong authorities has demonstrated that the ‘one country, two systems’ concept is a pale shadow of what it once was,” Wasserstrom says.

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