Pressure is mounting on Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor to decisively contain the fourth wave of coronavirus infections after her unprecedented virtual meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, who expressed his worries about the pandemic, lawmakers and analysts have said.
Lam had to deliver results and not just be seen as trying to do more, they added, citing how Xi was making it clear that doing so and reopening the economy remained her top priorities as chief executive.
Pro-establishment political figures also said the city’s government had to continue with their work to curb the influence of the opposition camp to a level Beijing could accept, following remarks from Xi emphasising the importance of ensuring that “patriots govern Hong Kong”.
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Lam briefed Xi on her administration’s work in a teleconference on Wednesday in lieu of her annual visit to Beijing, with Xi telling the city’s leader that he was “worried and concerned” about the coronavirus spreading across the city.
While pledging the central government’s utmost efforts to assist Hong Kong in fighting the pandemic, the president also stressed the importance of patriotic leadership as he hailed the restoration of stability over the past year.
Xi also extended his sympathy to local officials sanctioned by the United States over their enforcement of the national security law since last June, and praised Lam for displaying the spirit of “loving the country” and Hong Kong as she tackled key issues related to the legislation.
In an interview with the US business news channel CNBC on Thursday, Lam said: “Sometimes, Hong Kong has been used as a pawn by the US administration whenever they have something they want to do in their relationship with our country.
“But I remain optimistic that with the new US administration, I hope that they will give us a fair hearing as far as the national security law is concerned.”
Tung Chee-hwa, Hong Kong’s first postcolonial leader from 1997 to 2005, described Xi’s praise as “encouraging and motivating” for Lam.
“Hong Kong, on its own, cannot effectively put the coronavirus under control … But the city is fortunate. The nation’s support is Hong Kong’s greatest political capital and strength,” he said.
But a pro-establishment lawmaker who spoke on condition of anonymity said of the meeting: “Xi’s very unhappy with her anti-epidemic work … He could have met her face-to-face if he wanted, after getting Lam to go though quarantine. To see her like this is to say the pandemic is still your top priority.”
Pro-establishment lawmaker Priscilla Leung Mei-fun, vice-chairwoman of the Business and Professionals Alliance, said Xi’s concerns about the coronavirus showed that the central government had high expectations for the city to get the pandemic under control.
“I still think a citywide, mandatory testing programme is needed,” she said.
Over the past weekend, Hong Kong authorities imposed an unprecedented lockdown in a residential area in Yau Tsim Mong district, and tested about 7,000 people for the coronavirus.
While critics questioned whether the operation was worth it, as only 13 infections were uncovered, Leung said the operation exposed how virulent the coronavirus was in the community.
“It’s a serious issue that a dozen cases could be found just like that. The government needs to mobilise more civil servants and learn from the mainland’s experience,” she added.
New People’s Party chairwoman Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee, an adviser on the city leader’s de facto cabinet, the Executive Council, also said that given Xi’s high expectations, Lam had to widen the scope of Covid-19 screenings, on top of new “ambush-style” lockdowns, such as the one launched to clear silent transmissions in another old neighbourhood in Yau Ma Tei this week.
“The government must make good use of Beijing’s promise of maximum support in expanding mandatory testing and bringing Sinopharm vaccines to Hong Kong,” Ip said.
Lam on Tuesday revealed she had asked the central government for help in procuring Covid-19 shots from state-owned Sinopharm after experiencing “hiccups” in securing other vaccines already purchased by her administration.
But medical advisers warned Lam’s latest plan would not speed up the roll-out, as Sinopharm had yet to unveil any third-phase trial data in medical publications. Chinese University respiratory medicine expert Professor David Hui Shu-cheong also stressed that the widespread use of the vaccine in mainland China would not be a factor in weighing emergency approval for Hong Kong.
Ip, however, insisted that the use of Sinopharm shots on the mainland and other parts of Asia should be taken into account by the government.
According to Lam, health officials had encountered problems in securing doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine from Europe, Beijing-based Sinovac’s CoronaVac and the jab jointly developed by AstraZeneca and Oxford University, despite having advance purchase agreements in place.
Another pro-establishment leader, Starry Lee Wai-king, chairwoman of the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress for Hong Kong, also said the government needed to consider approving Sinopharm vaccines as an exceptional case.
“It would be great to have the data ready, but we also need to look at the actual situation. More than 10 million people already had Sinopharm shots … Many residents also told us that they wanted to have more vaccines to choose from,” she said.
Lee also noted that in a separate meeting with Lam on Wednesday, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang said he hoped the city’s government could “respond to residents’ most pressing needs, and make big efforts in improving people’s livelihoods”.
“On livelihood issues … there is consensus among the pro-establishment camp that an unemployment subsidy should be launched,” Lee said. “I hope there will be some breakthrough in the budget next month.”
Lee’s party had previously proposed offering each unemployed resident at least HK$6,000 a month for three to six months.
On the political front, Xi on Wednesday described “patriots governing Hong Kong” as a fundamental principle that safeguarded the nation’s sovereignty and security.
Lee said to fulfil the president’s demand, Hong Kong officials had to extend requirements for pledges of allegiance to more public officers, including district councillors.
Hong Kong’s constitutional affairs chief, Erick Tsang Kwok-wai, has previously said his bureau would introduce an amendment in the Legislative Council to do just that. Beijing is also considering overhauling the electoral system ahead of the next leadership race in 2022, according to sources.
But Tian Feilong, a law professor at Beihang University in Beijing, said the legislative amendment was only the first step.
“After the amendment bill is approved, it has to be enforced, and measures need to be implemented in the run-up to the next Legco polls, as well as the election of the 1,200-member Election Committee, which will choose the city’s next leader in 2022,” he said.
Tian added that while Lam’s administration had been incapable of bringing the epidemic under control, there was nothing to suggest that the chief executive had lost Beijing’s trust.
He said Lam’s report card from Xi, reading from his comments seemed to be about 90 upon 100 for political work and 60 upon 100 for combating the pandemic.
“The president fully acknowledged her courage on political issues … I believe that the central government would give her some time to learn from, and make up for, her mistakes in battling the coronavirus,” he added.
Was time running out for Lam, whose first five-year term in office ends in June next year, to prove to Beijing she deserved another term? Those commenting on the virtual meetings felt it was too early to tell and her performance in the coming months was critical.
Tian said: “I believe that the central government would give her some time to learn from, and make up for her mistakes in, battling the coronavirus. I cannot see any sign that she could be replaced.”
Former DAB chairman, Tam Yiu-chung, the city’s sole delegate to the National People’s Congress Standing Committee, the country’s top legislative body, also said Xi’s worries about the pandemic did not mean Lam’s chances of re-election were in jeopardy.
“I don’t want to speculate on an election that’s more than a year away,” he said. “Maybe she doesn’t want to continue, maybe someone is more suitable than her, or maybe she gets really proactive and popular later this year. Usually we won’t know this kind of thing until the last minute.”
In the interview with CNBC, Lam was also asked if she would seek re-election when her tenure ends next year. The chief executive only said: “I just try to comfort myself that very often, women are being left to do the most difficult job. And I happen to be one of them.”
Additional reporting by Ng Kang-chung
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