Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam on Friday announced the postponement of elections for the city’s top job after ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leader Xi Jinping told her government to throw all of its resources at pursuing a “zero-COVID” strategy, as a wave of the omicron variant of COVID-19 infections started to take its toll.
Nominations had been slated to begin on Feb. 20 for the March 27 election, which has now been postponed to May 8, to enable her administration to “focus on the epidemic,” Lam said in comments reported by government broadcaster RTHK.
“[Our attention] cannot be diverted and we cannot afford to lose,” she said, citing Xi’s “important directive” earlier this week ordering her government to prioritize Beijing’s zero-COVID policy and get the current wave of infections under control.
In 2020, Lam also postponed elections to the Legislative Council (LegCo), after which 47 opposition politicians and activists were arrested under a draconian national security law that has targeted peaceful critics of the CCP and the Hong Kong authorities.
According to the pro-China Sing Tao Daily newspaper, Lam’s administration is now gearing up for compulsory mass COVID-19 testing of the city’s seven million inhabitants, who will face fines of up to HK$10,000 for non-compliance, and some test samples sent across the border to laboratories in Shenzhen, a move that will likely spark fears that Beijing wants to hold DNA samples of Hongkongers in the same way it holds DNA samples of Uyghurs and other ethnic groups in Xinjiang.
The government has invited a team of CCP experts to advise it how to proceed, Lam said on Thursday.
“The … government is now working closely with the relevant ministries and commissions of the central authorities, as well as the Guangdong provincial government,” she said. “[On Feb. 16], we welcomed the arrival of a number of epidemiological experts, two mobile testing vehicles and a number of testing technical personnel from the mainland to support us.”
“We will certainly take the fight against the epidemic as the overriding task, as requested by President Xi,” Lam said. “A territory-wide virus test is something we are considering, and we are still planning the specifics.”
“The scale and pace of the community outbreak have outgrown the capacities of our anti-epidemic operations,” she said.
Current affairs commentator Johnny Lau said Xi will be seeking to establish total political control over Hong Kong ahead of the CCP’s 20th Party Congress later this year, when he will be seeking an unprecedented third term in office.
“The habit of total political control runs so deep that it’s impossible for [Xi] to not intervene, and stop micro-managing the daily running of Hong Kong,” Lau said.
“Their top priority is to consolidate Xi Jinping’s image as a core leader ahead of the 20th Party Congress,” he said, adding that Hong Kong will likely foot the bill for the massive testing, isolation and control operation that will likely soon follow.
Lam has said she is opposed to mass compulsory testing as suggested by pro-Beijing voices on several occasions, so Xi’s intervention — despite its use of “cordial” language — is tantamount to a stinging rebuke.
She told a news conference on Nov. 25, 2020: “I can only imagine they mean tested the entire population in as short a space of time as possible, then removing those infected for isolation and treatment.”
“It would require locking up everyone who tests positive … and to test seven million would take four weeks,” she said. “Can the people of Hong Kong, its companies and financial services industry put up with staying home for four weeks, without going out.”
“Even if they could, I’m not sure how we would manage [to get supplies to everyone] to support their daily needs, so I think this idea of mandatory testing for all is just a slogan,” she said at the time.
Lam and her executive councilors reiterated their opposition to mass compulsory testing on Jan. 18, Jan. 22 and Feb. 4, calling it “not feasible” and citing limited resources and a lack of support from epidemiologists for the idea.
Hong Kong reported a further 3,629 confirmed COVID-19 cases and another 10 deaths on Friday, with a further 7,600 preliminary positive cases. The city’s Hospital Authority vowing to bring all patients currently outside in parking lots indoors by the end of the day, RTHK reported.
Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.