Chinese authorities are combating an unexpected threat to their rigorous “zero-Covid” policy: illegal border crossings by people fleeing an outbreak in Hong Kong.
Some Chinese cities have offered rewards for information about people smuggling after 15 individuals illegally entered Zhuhai, in southern Guangdong province, by boat from Hong Kong.
It is not clear if they were Hong Kong residents or Chinese nationals attempting to return home from the territory. According to Chinese media reports, at least four of them had Covid-19 and later travelled to other Chinese cities and provinces.
Shanghai health authorities also confirmed on Friday morning that new cases in the city included a Chinese national who had travelled from Hong Kong to Zhuhai on February 13, and then took a high-speed train to Shanghai on February 14. Anyone arriving legally in China from overseas or Hong Kong must spend two weeks in a hotel or quarantine centre before continuing their journey.
“Mainland cities are concerned about arrivals from Hong Kong,” said Tam Yiu-chung, Hong Kong’s most senior representative in China’s parliament, the National People’s Congress. “They are worried that cases might get into their community.”
Fences and other fortifications along Hong Kong’s long land border with Shenzhen, Guangdong’s second-largest city, were originally built to stop illegal immigration from China into the territory. It is also easy to travel by boat between Hong Kong and many cities in Guangdong, whose long coastline and river networks are difficult to police.
State media outlets have run commentaries arguing that Hong Kong must stick to China’s zero-Covid strategy to ensure national security. On Wednesday, President Xi Jinping said that the Hong Kong government needed to make eradication of the outbreak its top priority.
To achieve this, the Hong Kong government is weighing mandatory testing of the city’s entire population, followed by quarantines for everyone who tests positive.
On Friday, the Chinese government’s top representative in Hong Kong summoned real estate tycoons to a meeting at which they discussed contributing hotels, properties and other resources to the effort. The meeting was broadcast live and conducted in Mandarin, China’s official language, which some of the business executives in attendance struggled to speak clearly.
Lau Siu-kai, who advises the Chinese government on Hong Kong policy matters, said illegal border crossings from the territory could also stir up “dissatisfaction among mainland Chinese residents and questions about why [Hong Kong] authorities are not doing enough to prevent that from happening”.
The zero-Covid strategy has prevented the mass deaths suffered elsewhere but it has also cut Hong Kong from both the outside world and the rest of China. Business has warned that the policy has undermined the city’s role as a financial hub while some companies have temporarily relocated staff.
On Friday, authorities reported 3,629 Covid-19 cases, with another 7,600 cases still pending confirmation. HSBC, the British bank, shut six branches temporarily in the city, including several floors of its head office, after staff tested positive.
Carrie Lam, the territory’s chief executive, on Friday announced that elections to elect a new leader would be postponed from March 27 to May 8, in an indication that authorities expect the Covid outbreak to persist.
One Hong Kong resident, who asked not to be identified, told the Financial Times that his family of five was considering leaving the territory for Fujian province, where they have a home. “I’ve been in Hong Kong for nearly seven years and I’ve never seen [anything like this],” he said.