Hong Kong is now being overwhelmed by the onslaught of a fifth wave of Covid-19 infections. Cases have risen from around 100 at the start of February to more than 1,300 on 13 February – hundreds of which cannot be traced for source investigation. There’s no doubt that Hong Kong is experiencing a more dangerous local community outbreak.
A lot of friends of mine in Hong Kong have been talking about the “failure” of the control and prevention of the Covid-19 pandemic there, most of whom are so-called HK drifters between Hong Kong and the Chinese Mainland. For the past two years Hong Kong has been seeking to establish a “customs clearance” arrangement with the Mainland, which was a painful process. But it failed to prepare the necessary system, institutions and related infrastructure. It seems destined that Hong Kong’s hope of the “customs clearance” arrangement has always been destroyed by new unexpected outbreaks at the time when it’s supposed to be achieved. Up to now Hong Kong has given in to the Omicron variant due to its extremely high infectivity.
A few days ago, People’s Daily published the article “Dynamic Zero-Covid Policy: Hong Kong’s Scientific Choice” based on the Mainland’s experience. Despite their good intentions, I’m afraid that the suggestions are not to take root considering Hong Kong’s political and social reality, and public management enforcement. That is, Dynamic Zero-Covid Policy cannot be implemented in Hong Kong like any other country in the world except the Mainland.
And now, with rapidly-increasing untraceable cases, Hong Kong has fallen and lost control at the community level. It’s very likely that a somewhat irreversible tipping point has been reached and Dynamic Zero-Covid Policy implementation is being undermined in the face of such high infectivity, given the current control and prevention infrastructure in Hong Kong.
However, for the time being we cannot come to such a definite conclusion that Hong Kong must fail in the pandemic of Covid-19.
For one thing, we need to clarify the reference, that is what country or region we compare Hong Kong to. The cumulative number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Hong Kong is 15K+ with 200+ cumulative deaths. Surely, it’s not a good performance in the Mainland’s view, but somewhat excellent compared to most other countries and regions. Let’s take Singapore for example, a typical Asian city with a majority of the population being Chinese. There have been 400K+ cumulative confirmed cases and a total death toll of 900+ up to now. So, it should be clear that when we say Hong Kong’s performance in the fight with Covid-19 is not good, it refers to a comparison with the Chinese Mainland, or more precisely the compatible 1st-tier city such as Shanghai, Shenzhen or Guangzhou, where the fighting Covid-19 performance has been pretty good with a set of flexible control and prevention measures. Therefore, we have reasons to believe that Hong Kong should have done better.
For another thing, it’s about a specific policy objective, which is the “customs clearance” with the Chinese Mainland. First of all, Hong Kong is economically highly dependent on the Mainland, no matter in terms of retailing, hotels, tourism, transportation and other service industries, or the so-called elite economy based on the middle ring, because of Hong Kong’s offshore financial center role in the world. Secondly, there is a large population who need to commute between Hong Kong and the Mainland, so the achievement of “customs clearance” is the basic necessity for them to return to a normal life. Finally, Hong Kong is a territory under the sovereignty of the PRC and it should be included and integrated in the Chinese control and prevention system for Covid-19 as a whole, instead of being an outlier in the Western and foreign systems. It’s the “customs clearance” that plays an important role in connecting Hong Kong to the Mainland to avoid being two different worlds. In this sense, Hong Kong’s Covid-19 prevention policy cannot be considered successful if the “customs clearance” policy is still in the air.
Well, why is Hong Kong not able to achieve “customs clearance” with the Mainland?
First, we need to make a clearer definition of the so-called “customs clearance” arrangement.
In my opinion, there are two kinds of definitions.
One is more about the form, referring to building bridges and infrastructure and implementing a two-way (both Hong Kong and the Mainland) mechanism to be free from the strict quarantine policy for international travel. There should be no difference between visiting Hong Kong and any other city in the Mainland as long as the pandemic is under control. As a matter of course, it requires Hong Kong’s control and prevention system, institutions, policy and related information to be in line with those of the Mainland, at least on the occasion of entry and exit at customs. Most of the time we are talking about this kind of “customs clearance,” which is formal and technical and doesn’t carry implications for the free movement of people between the two places.
The other is more in nature, that is the free movement of people between the two places. Let’s have a look at the current control and lockdown measures in the Mainland: A city or region will be marked as a “middle-risk area” or “high-risk area” if there is an local outbreak of Covid-19, and anyone who lives or visited there within 14 days will all be subject to a number of travel rules or bans, and their personal travel itinerary card will be asterisked also. Accordingly, it’s quite obvious that the free movement of people between two regions in the Mainland can only be achieved if Dynamic Zero-Covid Policy can be effectively implemented. The same goes for Hong Kong. And we can see that the real “customs clearance” necessarily leads to the adoption of Dynamic Zero-Covid Policy as a prerequisite.
Secondly, it should not be a complex problem. Even if we don’t have any health code or itinerary card, the real “customs clearance” can still be achieved between any two countries or regions in the world (such as the one between USA and UK), if their control and preventions measures are more or less the same – say, opting to co-exist with the virus. It’s simply a symmetry issue. And in practice, it’s harder for an area, region or country with more relaxed policies to establish “customs clearance” arrangements with those pursuing stricter requirements.
In the same way, because of the strict policies on the Mainland, Hong Kong needs to upgrade its control and prevention system against Covid-19 and make sure they are in line with each other, unless there is a downgrade in the Mainland.
Well, so far, we see that Hong Kong has failed to achieve either kind of “customs clearance” solutions.
On one hand, a digital health code system has not been fully established for mutual recognition as a bridge between Hong Kong and the Mainland. Actually, the current so-called bridge only needs to be a simple framework for elementary information integration; it doesn’t have to embody fine granularity at first, such as ID, address, Nucleic Acid Testing (NAT) results, vaccine records and other related health declaration information, the requirements of which have been very common everywhere in the world under the current pandemic and precisely meet the needs of entry and exit at customs, without the realization of personal tracing functions in Hong Kong, e.g. to set health codes to different colors according to the declared addresses. Anyway, no matter how brief the framework must be based on an individual real-name authentication, which should be bound to Mainland Travel Permit Numbers for Hong Kong residents at immigration. Further, according to the Mainland’s regulations in practice, the real-name authentication should be finally bound with mobile numbers, all of which in the Mainland have been real-name authenticated. It’s such a basic information link that caused endless democratic but fruitless debates across all sectors in Hong Kong. Finally, Hong Kong’s health code system achieved a mutual recognition arrangement with that of Guangdong, which was not opened to the public for registration until December 10 2021, nearly two years after the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Up till now, there have been very few people who have traveled to the Mainland for certain reasons that allowed them to apply for the health codes. The yellow ribbons*, who have a deep fear of the Mainland and always live with delusions of political persecution, would rather give up the opportunities for development in the Mainland than apply for such health codes.
*Yellow and blue symbolize two different attitudes towards the HKSAR government, with yellow symbolizing demonstrators with certain grievances against the government.
Hong Kong has wasted too much time on such a basic “bridge-building” issue. However, as a comparison, Macau, which is also under China’s “One Country, Two Systems” policy, has introduced this system and achieved a mutual recognition with its neighboring province Guangdong early in May, 2020. We can see a large gap between Hong Kong’s attitude towards the governance and political order in the Mainland and that of Macau – all from a small health QR code.
On the other hand, we need to understand the effects of Dynamic Zero-Covid Policy, which means zero new cases over a relatively long period time. As mentioned before, a city in the Mainland will be alarmed as a “middle-risk area” or “high-risk area” and even locked down if there is an outbreak of Covid-19, thus making it barely possible for people to go out of town. So, even if we have successfully built the “bridge” (such as the health code system) and other infrastructure, it doesn’t necessarily mean a free two-way movement in essence, because Hong Kong needs to accomplish Dynamic Zero-Covid Policy in advance like any other city in the Mainland.
After all, what do we need to accomplish Dynamic Zero-Covid Policy?
From my point of view, the core underlying support is the infrastructure and governance based on digitization – deploying information technologies and utilizing big data to trace the spread of Covid-19. The basic premise is mandatory real-name and mobile phone authentication, and mandatory personal information collection related to public health interests, such as addresses and itinerary. That’s the secret of China’s success with Dynamic Zero-Covid!
There are few countries or regions in the world where such public governance regulations and enforcement can be ensured, especially those English cultural spheres with an extremely heavy and one-sided emphasis on personal privacy and rights, the protection of which has no boundary even if it may result in a threat to public health, public welfare and the well-being of the majority. Most people there are not prepared to cede the least of their personal rights to benefit the whole of society and build a solid moat to fight the pandemic, especially for the disadvantaged groups in great need of protection. These individualists and egoists refuse to sacrifice anything or put themselves at risk, even if the probability of harm is only 0.001%. And eventually, in turn, they will use the so-called “great narration” such as human rights, freedom and limited government power, only to beautify their extreme selfishness, extreme narrow-mindedness, and extreme myopia.
In addition to selfishness, there is also a kind of boundless, endless doubt and fear of government, combined with a strong resistance, stemming from American anti-government feelings. Neither can it help people to overcome the deep-rooted distrust and fear of government, nor to cultivate a spirit of love and dedication and sense of identity towards most members of the society.
And Hong Kong’s society just provides a perfect place for these values together with the realities as follows:
The inherent indifference derived from life in a modern metropolis and post-capitalism;
The ingrained doubt and distrust of HKSAR government;
A pervasive highly occidentalist’s perspective;
An instinctive distaste for and rejection of the governance model of the Chinese mainland
And the so-called yellow ribbons struggled to list various reasons for their opposition.
On one hand, these guys embraced a fallacy that anything should not be adopted if it’s not perfect. For example, they said the health code can’t substitute for the control and prevention policy itself, it can’t cover every scenario and it’s not effective enough for protection. Anyway they tried their best to imply the health code system seems useless.
On the other hand, the yellow ribbons rendered and amplified negative impacts as another kind of attack:
A new inequality for elderly residents without smartphones (In fact, a sound control and prevention system is in their best interests!);
Government expansion of authority for group classification and potential prejudice and discrimination;
A game for the rich because of the smartphone premise and other necessary economic burdens (such as testing costs);
A deprivation of personal freedom;
Privacy and information security issues;
More disgustingly, they have been spreading rumors in private that you will run the risk of political persecution once the health code is applied, and corresponding personal information will be collected by the Mainland.
What they do is just nitpick to show the imperfection of the health code system, often with exaggerations and fearmongering to various degrees. Their strategy is to appeal to politicization.
The health code issue is quite simple – why not hold a poll? I believe we would find that acceptance is highly dependent on the political inclinations of Hong Kong residents: blue ribbons are for it and yellow ones are against it.
How similar it is to the polarized American society!
It can be inferred that there is almost no possibility of the enforcement of such a control and prevention system based on digitization and big data (especially the mobile phone real-name authentication, mandatory declarations and collection of related information), and with wide support from the whole society. Now that Hong Kong is not willing to do so, I don’t think the government will play a paternalistic role in taking compulsory measures. Thus, Dynamic Zero-Covid Policy is not to succeed and at this point Hong Kong is just the same as most countries/regions in the world. I’m afraid that only China is capable of achieving a Zero-Covid target and dealing with variants from Delta to Omicron.
As I have pointed out in my previous articles, it never occurred to the Chinese government and people that their success in fighting the Covid-19 pandemic is not replicable for other countries and regions, since the beginning of 2020.
So far, there are only two ways to fight Covid-19 – the Chinese way vs. the “other way.”
The Chinese way is continuously sticking to Dynamic Zero-Covid Policy. It requires not only strong political will, political decisiveness, political mobilization, support and cooperation of the broad masses, but also the strong ability of data governance. The success of the Dynamic Zero-Covid policy helps people to re-examine and deepen their comprehension of the Chinese model, Chinese politics and Chinese governance. The Chinese model cannot be duplicated by other countries and this proves its exceptionalism.
Then what is “other way”? It is vaccine plus natural infection. Some people take vaccines while other people get antibodies after getting infected. (Of course there will be intersections whereby vaccinated people may be attacked by the virus, then have their antibodies enhanced.)
The society will be in a state of “herd immunity” when the number of vaccinated people and naturally infected people reach a certain proportion. As I mentioned before, not all countries are willing to adopt this expensive model because it may result in a great number of Covid-19 patients, more deaths and huge consumption of medical resources. For most countries it is a necessity rather than an option to adopt this model. None of them have the Chinese model or Chinese governance abilities, so Dynamic Zero-Covid is not going to happen in those countries. After they struggle for a while, they have no choice but to lie flat – coexist with viruses.
Hong Kong, like other regions and countries outside of the Chinese mainland, exhibits a lack of necessary political, social and cultural foundations. So it’s impossible for Hong Kong to adopt the measures and technical means to achieve Dynamic Zero-Covid.
The elite in Hong Kong advocate for the Western world a lot. It is their instinct to seek answers from the USA and Europe when they face problems. Here we have to mention that Hong Kong is ruled and governed by a large elite group, the so called Deep State. Most people in the group are actually against the governance model of the Mainland, resisting the political model and political order provided by Chinese central government. Meanwhile, they don’t have the political will, motivation, ability or confidence to promote and fulfill in Hong Kong society the policies of Beijing or the wider Mainland. If you ask them, the best model is definitely not China. The Chinese model, in their eyes, is in no way the most advanced – there must be great defects here or there, whether they are technical or moral deficiencies. What they refer to or take in comparison is and will always be the American or European model, which they take in their hearts to be superior, more advanced and more civilized. Moreover, they call themselves “Noble Chinese,” so they are taking the lead in introducing the advanced Western model to Hong Kong. The way out for Hong Kong and what Hong Kong relies on is, and should always be, to obtain the recognition of an international society led by America and Europe, rather than achieve “Customs Clearance” with the Mainland.
However, out of fear of the central government’s expectations and for the practical interests of Hong Kong grassroots, the Hong Kong elite and the Deep state have to, ostensibly, strive to maintain the “Customs Clearance “ goal. Actually, it is political opportunism, taking one step at a time to see how far they get. They will definitely not announce publicly their decision to give up the “Customs Clearance” with the Mainland goal, while deep in their heart they believe Dynamic Zero-Covid is impossible. The necessary system to apply Dynamic Zero-Covid policy cannot be carried out in Hong Kong. There is nothing reliable. All they do is act under no set of choices. Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive, in order to detach herself from any specific outcome and to draw a clear distinction, went so far as to declare she was not the initiator of the Dynamic Zero-Covid policy to show her “helplessness.”
What they dare not say is the perspective deep in their hearts, which is that the solution to Covid-19 is actually “lying flat” like the Western world, using the “vaccine plus natural infection” approach to finally reach co-existence with the virus. As long as they follow the steps of the US or the UK in “lying flat,” Hong Kong will soon be integrated with these Western countries (eat together, drink together and so on).
At that time, the elites in Hong Kong will be very happy to visit abroad. The Western elites can also visit Hong Kong freely. As the first part of China to know, understand and integrate best with the Western world (“noble Chinese” title), Hong Kong, in function as a model, can be integrated with Western countries ahead of China, and will at the same time be separated from China mainland. (We are in line with the word, we are of them).
Of course elites will not say it in the first place. While with the normalization of the pandemic, especially with the appearance of the Omicron variant in the second half of 2021, after most developed countries led by the US and the UK openly chose to pursue a “vaccines plus natural infection” approach, the “lying flat” model became an ordinary state of affairs and was accepted by society.
The public opinion environment has been changing all the time. The Chinese model now seems to be some kind of liability, while the Western experiences and other developed countries suddenly became a type of achievement. Meanwhile, some people are singing high praise for the protection of civil rights and freedom advocated by those developed countries (at the same time they make no mention of what it cost in terms of lives and society). These views not only weaken the will to fight Covid-19 in Hong Kong, but also have an effect in the Mainland in the battle with the pandemic. It shakes recognition of the performance and persistence of the Dynamic Zero-Covid policy in the Mainland. It even provides an opportunity to those who suspect and attack the Chinese system and model.
The ruling elites in Hong Kong know are crystal clear that there is no such ability for Hong Kong to reach Dynamic Zero-Covid, as there is no political, social or cultural basis. For previous periods of Zero-Covid it was mainly attributed to luck. Hong Kong did not develop or complete the infrastructure like the Mainland has done. In order to achieve the undeniable “customs clearance goal,” Hong Kong officials can only take the opportunity, looking carefully before taking each step. They hope the pandemic can be vanquished gradually and reach the goal naturally – then they won’t have to make a hard choice between the Chinese model and the “other model.” Actually, the elites in Hong Kong have made their choice a long time before, which is the “other model,” led by the US and the UK.
The appearance of the highly infectious Omicron variant was a heaven-sent chance for them. It provided them with the best reason to choose “lying flat.”
Actually, in my opinion, we cannot compare pandemic-fighting models simply in terms of “good” or “bad.” Different models are different ways to combat viruses by different groups people. Different models are competing among different political systems, ruling models and social values across different countries and regions. Each pandemic-fighting model must be built on its own basis and in pursuit of certain goals that conform to local values. The model won’t exist if it breaks away from the basis or the goals.
The choice that Hong Kong has made is reflected by local politics, society, culture and values in Hong Kong. That is, Hong Kong is a Chinese society fully influenced, ruled and led by Anglo-American values.
Anyway, in face of Covid-19, neither the Chinese model or the “other model” will finally find a way out for people. It is just a matter of how costly it is, as the value standards are different in different societal systems.
What is the worst model? The worst model is to play the pendulum between Dynamic Zero-Covid and “lying flat” – neither the Chinese model nor the “other model.” This is the current situation in Hong Kong, which is the worst and the most embarrassing one. Hong Kong does not have the ability to achieve Dynamic Zero-Covid, and meanwhile it dares not perform the “lying flat” policy to coexist with the virus. The result is what we see now – neither you nor me, neither live nor die. Hong Kong can neither join the big circle with the Mainland, nor that with the US or Europe. On one hand, it paid the price in trying to achieve Dynamic Zero-Covid (e.g. control and lockdown of places for social communication), yet on the other hand it didn’t enjoy the benefits brought about by a real Zero-Covid (including free flow of people and customs clearance ). This is the worst situation – a miserable one.
China is experiencing a serious tearing and breaking of political civilization with the Western world led by the US. Hong Kong is caught between the tearing and breaking, lost.
One thing is for sure: Hong Kong maintains nonstop suspicion towards the political system and order in Beijing and the broader Mainland, and a fantasy about the Western world, which it treats as a land of bliss.
At the end of the post, I’d like to take a look at the future probable evolution of Hong Kong’s outbreak this time:
It’s completely out of control, with thousands of daily new confirmed cases.
Hong Kong has been unable to carry out effective source investigations because of the lack of necessary digital infrastructure. Therefore, the surge in new cases is constantly ongoing and overwhelming the city’s emergency resources.
The Hong Kong administration has to report to Beijing that they have been cornered and have no good solutions to control the surge.
Now it is too late for deep involvement of the Chinese central government, except for emergency material and human resources support, because the framework of Hong Kong’s public governance cannot be changed at all.
The central government will see it’s finally a matter of Hong Kong’s own business in the end if they choose to “lie flat” in the pandemic like the Westerners. And it’s not proper for the central government to be in charge of too many related issues in Hong Kong (such as setting a zero-covid target), because there is neither the infrastructure basis nor the will of the people. It’s even advantageous for the central government to keep a relative distance from the Hong Kong administration if Dynamic Zero-Covid Policy is not feasible at all!
Soon the Hong Kong administration will have to report to the central government that they worked as hard as they could and tried their best but had no way out. They have no other choice except to “lie flat” and give in.
Beijing has no other choice either, only to let them be.
Eventually the “customs clearance” is still far away and unattainable in the foreseeable future, even if the health code systems have accomplished technical mutual recognition. The real “customs clearance” is probably only to be achieved if the Mainland changes Covid-19 related policies systematically.
Let’s get back to the article “Dynamic Zero-Covid Policy: Hong Kong’s Scientific Choice” published by People’s Daily. However, I have a different opinion, given the reality that Beijing (the central government) may as well take a step back and let Hong Kong do their homework this time by themselves.
If so, there are only two types of scenarios:
The first scenario: a large-scale community transmission of Covid-19 takes place, which brings about a large amount of newly confirmed cases and deaths. For the time being, there are 1 million+ Hong Kong citizens who haven’t taken the first vaccine yet, while the rate of vaccination among those aged 70+ (the most vulnerable to Covid-19) is still at a low level. So, senior citizens living in retirement homes and public housing estates will face a pretty high health risk. If Hong Kong finally “lies flat” without any other choice and suffers a great loss, well, it’s sad, but it also precisely proves the correctness and righteousness of Dynamic Zero-Covid Policy and can resolve people’s doubt and strengthen our confidence under the new situation of Omicron. Along with this process, the Mainland can play a significant role in providing any support as requested in order to help Hong Kong residents minimize the costs and losses.
The other scenario: a large-scale community transmission of Covid-19 causes a large number of newly confirmed cases but a very low death rate. Hong Kong is not going to run out of emergency resources and can still effectively deal with Covid-19 by means of its hospitals and medical system. However, this does not mean that the Dynamic Zero-Covid policy would be seen as problematic or questionable to the Mainland, it just proves that the virus variants are more and more mild and resistible for a region with strong support of vaccine and medical systems. Of course, Hong Kong is a highly developed economy and its case cannot be applicable to all cities in the Mainland. If China plans to follow international practices and make preparations for relaxing the Dynamic Zero-Covid policy, Hong Kong is not a good example to learn from. As I analyzed before, it’s very likely for China to seek a pilot mechanism if it’s prepared to relax the current control and prevention system. We are looking for the “lab rat,” while Hong Kong seems to volunteer to be the one with its heart linked to the Western world. Consequently, we might as well look at all the issues from a different perspective, realizing they are not kids and are accountable for their choices, instead of continuing to urge Hong Kong to realize the Dynamic Zero-Covid target. To be or not to be, let them choose their own fate.
However, there is no turning back once Hong Kong makes its decision. In order to achieve the “customs clearance,” free travel arrangement, a “lying flat” Hong Kong has to wait for the Mainland to adjust current control and prevention policies systematically. Nevertheless, Hong Kong may really help the Chinese mainland open up to new perspectives on the next stage of the Covid-19 pandemic. If so, I guess Hong Kong will, in its own way, finally make a historic contribution to China’s fight against Covid-19.