Policy address border hopes dashed

Editorial | Mary Ma 11 Nov 2020

With her policy speech due in a fortnight, has Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor managed to get what she wanted - as asserted when she unexpectedly postponed the policy document from early October to later this month?

Obviously not, if what she meant by "support for proposals to aid Hong Kong's recovery" in the announcement back then referred to a green light from the mainland to spare Hong Kong travelers the existing

14-day quarantine requirement.

It's getting clear by now that Lam returned from her recent trip to Beijing and Guangdong effectively empty handed - not because Beijing leaders were unwilling, but because those she met in Guangdong were absolutely reluctant.

Guangdong party secretary Li Xi or other officials in the province should not be blamed for standing in the way. Being the first pandemic defense line facing Hong Kong, Guangdong is more vulnerable to the risk than other mainland cities.

Should something go wrong, Li and local cadres would be punished, even if not sacked like others further afield in the north.

Unless Guangdong has a change of heart, I fear we are not going to hear about any of these long-anticipated breakthroughs in the postponed policy address.

Guangdong demands that Hong Kong achieves zero cases of local coronavirus infection continuously for 14 days.

If achieved, Guangdong would consider allowing Hong Kong travelers armed with negative test certificates to enter the province without having to quarantine themselves at designated hotels or other places.

This condition may sound simple but it is next to impossible - unless the SAR closes its border to the rest of the world while keeping open just the section with the mainland.

That's a tough demand. Small wonder, then, that Lam appeared a little upset when she spoke to reporters upon her return from the mainland at the weekend.

Equally disappointing is that little progress has been made on the front with Macau either.

Being more reliant economically than Hong Kong on the mainland, Macau has maintained a quarantine-free travel cross-border arrangement due to its record of 225 days free of local infection.

Lam's counterpart Ho Iat Seng is not going to bet with Macau's pandemic control record even though the enclave is one of the world's most famous gaming hubs.

I suspect that even if Lam managed to persuade Beijing to accept a medium risk of less than 10 local cases during any 14-day period, it would be extremely difficult to achieve - let alone the zero-case condition as demanded by the locals in Guangdong.

What will Lam say in her upcoming policy address to assure the tourism and retail sectors? Perhaps the administration had better start lowering expectations in advance.

But the future isn't as bleak as it appears. Pfizer's announcement that its vaccine is 90 percent effective raises hopes, although some questions have yet to be fully answered including the length of immunity and the scale of early vaccination programs.

That said, things are moving in the right direction.

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