This article was published as part of a new affiliation with The Guardian.

Recently, the traffic has been busier than usual in Lok Ma Chau, a village on Hong Kong’s northern border. Heavy-duty trucks shuttle mainland Chinese workers to and from the mostly wetland district, where they are building a makeshift hospital to treat Covid-19 patients.

Logistically, the hubbub would have been unimaginable a year or even a month, ago. Hong Kong is separated from the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen by a winding river. But in early March, a makeshift bridge linking the two cities was erected. Satellite images show the foundations of the structure being laid days before the Hong Kong government announced the project.

lok ma chau loop covid hospital bridge
The construction site of a Covid-19 hospital being built with mainland help in Lok Ma Chau, Hong Kong. Photo: Dale de la Rey/AFP.

With mainland Chinese medics and caregivers now staffing Hong Kong’s coronavirus facilities, the two-lane crossing in the city’s northernmost district has emerged as a physical manifestation of the shrinking space between Beijing and the semi-autonomous territory.

Beijing’s growing presence

The “one country, two systems” framework allowed the ex-British colony to preserve rights and freedoms not afforded across the border for 50 years, maintaining its status as a global, freewheeling hub in the heart of Asia.

Hong Kong handover ceremony
The Hong Kong handover ceremony on July 1, 1997. Photo: GovHK.

Yet, Beijing has attempted to bring Hong Kong under its wing since the handover. To boost a declining economy post-SARS, a visitation scheme introduced in 2003 made it easier for mainland Chinese travellers to come to Hong Kong. The influx of visitors created a dangerous reliance on cross-border tourism. In 2012, with Beijing’s support, Hong Kong proposed a patriotic education curriculum that triggered citywide protests.

The national security law, a response to large-scale demonstrations that broke out in 2019, was passed by Beijing’s top legislature a year later and enacted in Hong Kong without being reviewed by local lawmakers. Scores of veteran pro-democracy activists have been arrested under the law.

October 1 Police purple flag causeway bay national security banner
A police banner warning against potential violations of the national security law. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

But it took a pandemic – specifically, Covid-19’s highly transmissible variant, Omicron – for Beijing’s presence in Hong Kong to be felt in ways like never before.

In late February, Hong Kong announced that it would invoke the emergency ordinance so that the city could “draw on [the] mainland’s support” and “undertake key anti-epidemic projects at full speed,” a press release read.

At AsiaWorld-Expo, a treatment facility set up in a cavernous convention centre, elderly patients are now being tended to by mainland Chinese doctors and nurses. Under the emergency laws, they bypassed licensing exams and registration procedures normally required from non-locally trained staff. Authorities said computers for recording patient information had been changed from English to Chinese to accommodate them.

Carrie Lam with Covid-19 supply kit
Photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

Meanwhile, Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam announced during a Covid-19 press briefing on Friday that the city would start distributing kits to households with rapid test kits, face masks and traditional Chinese medication – Lianhua Qingwen – donated by the mainland.

The medication was registered with the city’s pharmaceutical but was flagged by health authorities in Singapore and the US for being advertised with unsupported claims.

“Beijing has been trying to mould Hong Kong into another [Chinese] city,” said Lynette Ong, a political science professor at the University of Toronto. “The Covid crisis gives them a legitimate reason to do so.”

Fanling Covid-19 isolation facility central government
The community isolation facility in Fanling, with read banners reading “help from Central government” and “fight the epidemic together.” Photo: GovHK.

Besides the construction of a Covid-19 hospital in Lok Ma Chau, mainland China has already assisted Hong Kong with completing six other isolation facilities for patients with mild or no symptoms. China and Hong Kong are some of the last places in the world that still isolate or hospitalise Covid-19 patients in stable condition.

While infrastructure projects typically involve construction firms submitting tenders to compete for billion-dollar contracts, all of the facilities being built with mainland aid have been handed over to Chinese State Construction Engineering, a state-owned company.

At an opening ceremony for the newest centre in the northern district of Yuen Long on Thursday, top Hong Kong officials stood at attention as they watched a video of toiling construction workers, portrayed as worked-to-the-bone heroes. A song in Mandarin, instead of the Cantonese language spoken in Hong Kong, played in the background.

mainland medics Covid-19
Hong Kong officials, including Chief Executive Carrie Lam, welcome mainland medics at the border. Photo: GovHK.

“The scale and speed at which these projects were finished is unprecedented,” Chief Executive Carrie Lam said at the ceremony. “This will go down in the history of Hong Kong’s Covid-19 fight.”

Closing spaces

Almost three years on from Hong Kong’s biggest social movement since its handover, many of the city’s sectors – from universities to civil society groups to independent newsrooms – have felt the impacts of Beijing’s political chill.

In those institutions, “there was once a chasm separating what takes place in Hong Kong from what takes place across the mainland border,” said Jeffrey Wasserstrom, a history professor at the University of California, Irvine.

Apple Daily last edition June 23, 2021 Mong Kok
Calvin, 27, reads a copy of Apple Daily’s last edition in Mong Kok on June 23, 2021. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

Under the national security law, those spaces are rapidly closing in as Beijing seeks to integrate Hong Kong further into its fold. And as Hong Kong prepares to welcome a batch of traditional Chinese medicine practitioners to staff treatment facilities and open more isolation camps built by mainland workers, the assimilation is now playing out more publicly than ever.

“The way that Covid-19 has been handled by the Hong Kong authorities has demonstrated that the ‘one country, two systems’ concept is a pale shadow of what it once was,” Wasserstrom said.

Correction 27/3: An early version of this piece wrongly stated that Lianhua Qingwen had not yet been registered locally. A local version was in fact registered, whilst a mainland version was excepted.

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Hong Kong Free Press is a new, non-profit, English-language news source seeking to unite critical voices on local and national affairs. Free of charge and completely independent, HKFP arrives amid rising concerns over declining press freedom in Hong Kong and during an important time in the city’s constitutional development.