By Chris Yeung —
With the democrats, labelled as the opposition, crushed, Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor is facing a more formidable opponent in some important aspects. It may sound like gross exaggeration. But former chief executive Leung Chun-ying has emerged as the most powerful adversary against Mrs Lam recently. And he appears to be eager to be seen as such.
Eyebrows were raised on Saturday night when Leung challenged a government decision to add Guangdong onto a list of medium-risk areas for Covid-19 following a recent outbreak of the virus in the Liwan district in Guangzhou.
That could mean Hongkongers would no longer be allowed to cross the land border and enter the city through the quarantine-free “Return2HK” programme.
Centre for Health Protection officials told a regular Covid-19 press briefing in the afternoon Guangdong would be added to the list, joining Anhui and Liaoning provinces, which recorded a similar outbreak earlier.
The decision drew flak from Leung, who wrote a post on his Facebook account in the evening, questioning why declaring the whole province a medium-risk area, but not just the area where the infected patient lived.
“Guangzhou City has an area of 7,434 square kilometres, and the area of the rest of the Guangdong Province is 23 times larger than Guangzhou City,” wrote Leung. “Guangzhou has a case, and the whole province has to stop Return2hk – this is one thing that [I] don’t understand.” He said
“What happened?” he asked at the end of his post.
The Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Bureau reacted swiftly with a late evening statement, saying only the building where the Liwan case happened would be ranked medium-risk. There was no plan to suspend Return2HK.
Both civil service minister Patrick Nip and health officials played down the controversy, attributing it to “misunderstanding” and “miscommunication”. No officials have categorically said the health officials’ declaration of Guangdong as a medium-risk area was a wrong call.
This is apparently because health officials had handled the Guangdong case in line with their own criteria when applied to the Anhui and Liaoning cases. There is no clear guideline saying Guangdong should be dealt with differently when a case breaks out.
What if the Liwan infected patient has already spread the virus. The public health risk of the case is difficult to assess. The health officials cannot be faulted for preferring to err on the side of caution.
That Leung, who is a vice-chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, has decided to blow up the issue by openly challenging the decision has turned it into a highly political power play.
Leung’s challenge has practically given no room for manoeuvring by the Lam administration.
Faced with the high political stake of a suspension of Return2Hong Kong, the Government has no alternative but to make a U-turn. Leung was quick to praise the government for doing the right thing as if he has succeeded in righting the wrong. To Lam, the policy reversal is in itself an admission of mistake in decision-making.
Anonymous pro-establishment figures could not wait to define it as a failure of bureaucrats to take a broader perspective when it comes to matters relating to the mainland.
One reportedly said easing travel restrictions across the border would be a pipe dream if the Government suspended Return2HongKong in Guangdong just because of one confirmed case in a district.
Whether the health officials’ decision is right or wrong from the public health perspective is no longer important. To Leung and the pro-Beijing circle, the verdict is given. It is a politically incorrect decision not conducive to forging closer integration with the mainland.
Realistically, Lam will not be able to come clean from the policy aboutturn.
It cannot be more coincidental that Leung gave comment on the credentials of the next chief executive at a radio programme on Saturday. He said not every patriot can do the job of chief executive well, adding knowing what happened in Hong Kong in the past few years is vitally important in electing a chief executive who would be able to seize the opportunity to run Hong Kong well.
Lam, who is no doubt eyeing another term, may now miss the democrats, who are the lesser-evil and a less-difficult opponent when compared to her former boss.
This article was first published on Apple Daily’s website on May 26.