BEIJING – As members of China’s lawmaking body file into the Great Hall of the People on Saturday (March 5) to the strains of the Welcome March for the country’s largest political gathering, one figure will notably be missing: Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam.
The Chief Executive, who is traditionally invited to attend the opening of the National People’s Congress (NPC), has turned down her invite to focus on battling the city’s most serious Coronavirus outbreak yet, with tens of thousands of new cases reported daily this week.
Nearly half of Hong Kong’s almost 240 delegates, including its sole representative to the NPC Standing Committee, Mr Tam Yiu Chung, have been barred from attending or are under quarantine because of Covid-19.
Beijing had ordered the deputies, as delegates are known as, to first self-quarantine in Hong Kong for a week, and undergo another week of centralised quarantine in China’s Shenzhen city, before they could attend the meetings in Beijing.
Beginning on Friday, the annual meetings of the NPC and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) – collectively referred to as the Two Sessions, or lianghui – bring together lawmakers and representatives from across the country, including Hong Kong and Macau.
But as the Covid-19 outbreak raged in Hong Kong, some delegates tested positive even before leaving the city while others were detected in quarantine. Only 17 of 36 Hong Kong NPC deputies and around half of about 202 CPPCC representatives made it to Beijing.
“Seeing your colleagues test positive or getting identified as close contacts one by one, it was almost like being in Squid Game,” said CPPCC member Michael Woo, who underwent 13 nucleic acid tests in two weeks just to attend the meetings.
Mr Tam was barred from the meetings after being identified as a close contact of Mr Irons Sze, a CPPCC member who tested positive, as was the head of Hong Kong’s NPC delegation Ma Fung-kwok.
As a result, Mr Tam’s seven-day quarantine in Shenzhen was extended to 21 days. “I’m going through nucleic acid testing every day,” he told The Straits Times in a text message. “There’s been no arrangement for online voting so I’m just following proceedings through live broadcasts.”
In some ways, Hong Kong’s Covid-19 troubles are a physical manifestation of the longstanding tension between the city’s institutions and China’s goals.