Hong Kong said Friday it would delay electing the city’s new leader and prepared to test its entire population for Covid-19 as it struggles to tackle a wave of infections.
China’s financial center is currently in the throes of its worst-ever outbreak of the coronavirus, with thousands of cases being recorded every day, with hospitals reaching breaking point and a Beijing-mandated zero-Covid policy collapsing.
A small committee of Beijing loyalists was set to elect the city’s new president in late March, with the nomination period for candidates starting Sunday.
But current leader Carrie Lam announced on Friday that the selection must now be shifted to May 8.
“The decision is due to Hong Kong facing the worst situation since the pandemic began two years ago. It’s a critical situation,” she told reporters.
Lam confirmed authorities were on the move to test all 7.5 million residents.
“One of the measures we are planning – planning very seriously – is a mandatory universal test. So we’ll test everyone in Hong Kong,” she said, though again ruling out a complete shutdown of the city.
Mass testing has often been used in mainland China alongside strict lockdowns to quickly eradicate clusters.
But it’s unclear what effect it will have in a city with so many daily infections and where a mainland-style lockdown is difficult to achieve.
It’s also not clear where Hong Kong would house and isolate so many positive cases once they were discovered.
Lam said the new measures are “in line with the spirit expressed by President Xi Jinping in his key instructions, which is that we must make fighting the epidemic our top priority.”
Earlier this week, Xi had called on Hong Kong to take “all necessary measures” to quell the current outbreak.
‘Patriots Only’ System
Like mainland China, Hong Kong has maintained a rigid zero-covid policy that has largely kept the virus out but shut down the international business center for the past two years.
That defense has now collapsed with the highly contagious Omicron variant entering the local community after infected flight crew and residents return from abroad.
On Friday, the authorities announced about 11,000 new infections. The day before, there were 12,000.
Prior to the current outbreak, Hong Kong had registered just 12,000 infections for the entire pandemic.
The wave has caught the government by surprise and few preparations have been made to address zero-Covid violations.
Authorities have since struggled to find thousands of hotel rooms and unused social housing blocks to isolate the infected, as well as a site to build a temporary hospital – and sought help from mainland China.
It comes at a politically sensitive time for Hong Kong.
Beijing is currently reshaping the once outspoken city in its own authoritarian image after massive and sometimes violent democracy protests erupted in 2019.
It has imposed a national security law that criminalizes many dissent, and new “patriots only” political changes that vet anyone who stands before public office for their political loyalties.
The new CEO selection should be the final step in this new process.
Days before the old term of office was due to begin, Lam was yet to say whether she would seek another five-year term.
Beijing has also given no indication as to whether it wants to lead her, or anyone else, while no serious contender with a realistic chance of success has announced a candidacy either.
The chief executive is elected by a small committee of loyalists, and every time the candidate seen as Beijing’s top pick has comfortably won enough votes.