Commentary: China's COVID-19 chaos is spilling over to Hong Kong
While the Hong Kong government and key economic sectors will welcome Chinese tourists and capital, the general public is already feeling the chaos of China’s planned border reopening, says Jacky Leung.
LONDON: After widespread protests in November 2022, China has made a big U-turn on zero-COVID, with border restrictions set to loosen significantly starting from Sunday (Jan 8) by scrapping quarantine for inbound travellers. The change, which allows Chinese nationals to travel abroad more easily, has renewed COVID-19 anxieties worldwide amid China’s surge of infections.
China is currently announcing around 5,500 new local cases per day. However, some foreign experts believe the data is severely underestimated and forecast the number of cases could reach one million per day this month.
The World Health Organization (WHO) stressed the importance of transparency, calling for a “more realistic picture” of the situation at a meeting with Chinese experts on Tuesday. Further data has yet to be announced. The inadequate information has caused various countries to impose restrictions on incoming Chinese tourists.
The United States and the United Kingdom are some countries that specifically require Chinese tourists to obtain a pre-departure negative COVID-19 test result. Mandatory testing is done upon arrival in Italy – after almost half of the passengers on two flights from China to Milan tested positive in late December.
CONCERNS OF DRUG AND VACCINE SHORTAGES
Hong Kong, which has nine major land crossings and used to have hundreds of flights to China pre-pandemic, has a divided view of the Chinese policy change.
The Hong Kong government had fought for a better connection with China for months. It undoubtedly welcomes the change and is willing to provide resources to facilitate that. The commercial and tourism sectors also embrace the move as the city's economy heavily depends on Chinese investment and tourists.
But the reopening border has so far been poorly received by the general public. Bad timing is to blame.
Hong Kong has been facing a shortage of paracetamol-based painkiller Panadol since December after the cases in China rapidly increased. Some pharmacists say that the drug is brought and delivered to the mainland.
But what is certain is that it is rarely seen in local pharmacies right now. With limited supply jacking up prices, a pack of the drug could cost hundreds of Hong Kong dollars.
This reminded many Hong Kongers of the baby milk powder crisis in 2013, when increasing Chinese demand for foreign milk powder created a market for parallel import from Hong Kong. Though outbound travellers were restricted to two cans of milk powder per visit, local parents still faced months of hardship.
Hong Kong locals worry that history will repeat itself when the Chinese are allowed to travel to Hong Kong freely, leaving them with limited drugs and vaccines to combat potential outbreaks. The government's promise to prioritise the latest version of vaccines for the locals has not eased the tension much.
DISRUPTIONS TO HONG KONGERS’ TRAVEL PLANS
Japan’s reaction to China’s border changes has also caused a stir online, swiftly moving to limit the number of airports and flights which Chinese tourists can use.
Japan is the most popular travel destination for Hong Kongers and most flights from Hong Kong were full after it relaxed quarantine measures for inbound travellers in October 2022. According to the Japan National Tourism Organization, 83,000 Hong Kongers travelled to Japan in November 2022, double the preceding month, though just 40 per cent of the figures in pre-pandemic November 2019.
When the Japanese government announced COVID-19 restrictions on Chinese tourists would also be imposed on Hong Kong travellers, it filled hundreds of thousands who had planned their Japan trips with horror. There would be no direct flight to cities outside of Tokyo, Osaka and Nagoya.
The Japanese government eased the measures after protest from the Hong Kong government, just one day after the initial announcement, allowing Hong Kong flights to land in three more airports, but the airlines must ensure no travellers have been in mainland China seven days before the journey.
The new rule also forces some flights to be cancelled and many journeys to be rescheduled. One traveller told me an eight-day trip to Sapporo she booked needed to be shortened to three days – certainly hard to accept.
DISCONTENT TARGETED AT CHINA
But the discontent among Hong Kongers is not targeted at Japan, but rather at China for its sudden and poor timing to reopen.
Hong Kongers have witnessed foreign countries’ mistrust of China and how easily Hong Kong can be caught in the crossfire.
To save the city from recession, the Hong Kong government is counting on better connections with the rest of China to bring in much-needed tourists and capital. But the poor timing of the reopening has left a scar on the hearts of many and may take a long time to heal.
Jacky Leung is an award-winning journalist who has worked in multiple Hong Kong TV and radio news stations. He is currently based in London.