More Hongkongers want the government to prioritise resuming travel to mainland China over destinations overseas should Covid-19 restrictions be relaxed, an opinion survey commissioned by HKFP has found. The results give credence to Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s assertion that it is “the common aspiration” of Hongkongers to resume mainland travel first.
According to a randomised telephone questionnaire by the Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute (PORI), 50 per cent of the 1,011 Cantonese-speaking local residents interviewed said that – if the city were to ease travel regulations amid the pandemic – they preferred to see the government take immediate steps to help Hongkongers travel to the mainland instead of overseas.
Those who favoured opening international borders for outbound travel first accounted for 38 per cent of the respondents, while the rest chose “neither” or said they “don’t know or hard to say.”
The results differed by political persuasion, with pro-democracy-minded citizens preferring to see international borders reopen first. Among the respondents who identified as pro-establishment, 82 per cent chose visiting the mainland first. Whilst, of the 190 interviewees who labelled themselves as pro-democracy, 67 per cent picked overseas travel first.
Similarly, there was a generational divide, with younger respondents preferring international travel first. 59 per cent of the 482 respondents aged 55 or above selected mainland China as their priority destination, whilst – of the 193 interviewees aged 18 to 34 – 70 per cent opted for overseas travel first.
The survey was conducted between last Monday and Thursday.
‘The majority rules’
Earlier this month, leader Carrie Lam said expanding the compulsory use of the government-developed “LeaveHomeSafe” app – described as a crucial criteria for reopening the city’s border with China – might cause potential complaints among citizens who have no plans to visit the mainland. But such a policy should still go ahead because “the majority rules,” the Hong Kong leader said.
She also told Bloomberg this month that cross-border travel came first: “[O]ur priority now is to resume some normal travel with the mainland. This is the common aspiration of the Hong Kong people…” she told the broadcaster.
Government buildings and venues now require people to scan the government’s contact-tracing app before entry. The same rule will extend to restaurants, gyms, cinemas and other private premises starting on December 9, as the authorities seek to meet the requirements to open the border.
On Thursday, Chief Secretary John Lee led a team of officials to attend a meeting with Chinese authorities in Shenzhen to iron out arrangements for resuming quarantine-free travel between Hong Kong and China. It came days after a team of mainland epidemic prevention and control expert concluded their visit to schools, vaccination centres and private clinics in Hong Kong.
He told the press on Thursday night that mainland experts said Hong Kong already possessed conditions for border reopening. The local government will therefore implement preparation work including rolling out the Hong Kong health code for travellers, with details announced next week.
Hong Kong to enter China ‘bubble’
Local respiratory disease expert Professor David Hui, who also advises the government on the pandemic, told HKFP that it is “relatively safe” for Hong Kong to first reopen its borders with areas which have not seen a Covid-19 outbreak in recent weeks, such as the Guangdong province. The government may also impose a daily quota and give priority to businesspeople, cross-border students and those travelling for family reasons, he said.
“It will not be a full reopening immediately… it will be a trial to see make sure [there is no outbreak] then they will expand the quotas,” said the professor from the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK).
Hui said although China has maintained a “good defence” against the pandemic, some provinces and cities still experienced outbreaks. It is therefore possible for Hong Kong to “have a slip” when it lifts travel restrictions with the mainland, Hui said, and the city should call a halt to the arrangement if such a situation emerges.
China has been adopting a stringent zero-Covid strategy by keeping its borders firmly shut and one single infection may trigger targeted lockdowns and large-scale testing.
Asked if reopening borders with China would affect Hong Kong’s timeline to resume quarantine-free international travel, Hui said the arrangement “would have an impact.”
“The mainland has stated clearly that [Hong Kong] cannot add any [infection] risk to China when borders are reopened. And if Hong Kong reopens borders with overseas, the risk will be high,” the government advisor said.
For Hong Kong to be prepared for the border reopening, Hui said the city must speed up vaccinations for high-risk groups and encourage more people to get their third jabs. The potential resumption of quarantine-free travel to the mainland may also incentivise people to receive their booster shot.
“If we have the virus in the community and these immunocompromised groups or the elderly get infected, our healthcare system will collapse,” he said.
As of Wednesday, Hong Kong has registered 12,411 Covid-19 infections while the death toll stood at 213. Around 67 per cent of the city’s population have been fully vaccinated, with 98,914 people inoculated with their third dose of a vaccine.