By: Gao Feng
The internal border between the former British colony of Hong Kong and the rest of China will open for the first time in three years on Sunday, with tens of thousands of people expected to undergo the COVID-19 tests required to move back and forth between the two sides.
The move comes after China last month abandoned the rolling lockdowns, mass surveillance and quarantine camps of its zero-COVID policy in a bid to kickstart its flagging economy. Authorities there will be lifting travel bans and opening its ports and airports across the country at the same time.
While quarantine-free travel across the border will resume, it will be done in a "gradual and orderly manner," China's Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office said in a statement on Thursday.
Under the new rules, anyone entering the rest of China from Hong Kong will need to show a negative PCR test from the past 48 hours, with this requirement waived for those coming in from Macau who haven't traveled outside the city in the previous seven days.
Anyone who declares they have a fever on their customs health declaration form will be tested for COVID-19, but otherwise will be waved through. Anyone found to have mild sickness or an asymptomatic infection will be asked to self-isolate on arrival and seek medical treatment, but this is only a recommendation, the statement said.
Passenger flights between Hong Kong, Macau and China will resume with no restriction on passenger density, but with mask-wearing mandatory on board flights, it said.
Initially, there will be a daily quota of 60,000 crossings in each direction, 50,000 of which are allocated to the land crossings, and 10,000 to ferry, bridge and airport crossings, the Hong Kong government announced, with the quotas filled via an online booking system.
"[This means that] nearly 1.8 million Hong Kongers will be able to go to mainland China in the space of a single month, or 3.6 million over two months, which is nearly half the population [of Hong Kong]," Hong Kong leader John Lee told journalists on Thursday.
"We will monitor the border situation closely, and jointly review [the quotas] with the governments of [neighboring] Guangdong province and Shenzhen city," he said, adding that the quotas could be increased if the initial border crossings went safely and smoothly.
The high-speed rail link between Hong Kong and Guangzhou will resume operation by Jan. 15 at the latest, he said.
Medical system ‘on verge of collapse’
Lee announced plans to open the city's internal border with the rest of China on Dec. 28, that the current wave of mass COVID-19 infections sweeping the country will engulf the city, sparking a run on medical resources.
"This doesn't just pose a deadly threat to the 1.4 billion people in China; it will also affect its neighbors," Hong Kong current affairs commentator To Yiu-ming wrote in a commentary for RFA's Mandarin Service. "Hong Kong won't be able to bear the brunt [of an expected influx of people from mainland China] unless it uses its pandemic policy to protect the interests of Hong Kongers."
"Although the exact numbers are unknown, the outbreak in China has been enough to cause social panic, because it is obvious to everyone that the medical system is on the verge of collapse, with funerals and cremations booked to capacity," To said.
He said now appears to be a very bad time to open China's borders.
"What's even more incredible is ... they are opening the borders at a time when COVID-19 is ravaging the country, with many reports of ground-glass opacity in patients' lung scans," he said, in a reference to a higher likelihood of pneumonia.
"It's natural that people are trying to escape and seek assistance ... and for them, it's a great time to come to Hong Kong to seek medical treatment or buy medicine," he wrote.
On Dec. 19, officials in Taiwan to avoid buying over-the-counter fever medicines in bulk, amid fears that a shortage in China would extend overseas as people asked friends and relatives to buy medicines and send them.
The run on fever-reducing antipyretics like ibuprofen and acetaminophen also spread to Hong Kong, and with it pharmaceutical price-gouging, on Dec. 13.
"[But] if ... a large number of people flow into Hong Kong, competing for medical services or drug supplies, or ... bringing new variants with them, this ... will create issues with the supply of resources and conflict between Hong Kong and the rest of China," To wrote.
"Just when Hong Kong was heading towards normalcy after three years of great suffering, they are opening up the borders at the worst time."
A Hong Kong resident who gave only the surname Chan said the asymmetrical testing requirements made little sense.
"It's not very logical, because the pandemic is worse in the mainland than it is in Hong Kong," Chan said. "The outbreak was already happening internally, and wasn't caused by people coming in from outside, so it seems a bit unnecessary to force people [coming from Hong Kong] to get a PCR test."
"It's all very confusing and it seems that it could be pretty complicated to apply [for a crossing]," she said. "I think maybe Hong Kongers will wait a bit longer; they've already been waiting for two or three years and they won't mind waiting a bit longer."
Hong Kong ‘could never have done this’
Before the pandemic, border crossings from Hong Kong to mainland China typically numbered 200,000 a day, according to Jacob Yam of the pro-China Hong Kong Alliance to Revitalize Economy and Livelihood.
He said he welcomed the quota of 60,000 arrivals from mainland China, as there are fears that mainland residents will "swamp" the city in search of hard-to-come-by medicines and imported COVID-19 vaccines, putting huge pressure on its medical resources.
But he said testing requirements on passengers arriving from China similar to those imposed by the United States, United Kingdom and European Union were never an option for Hong Kong.
"The Hong Kong government could never have done this, putting controls on incoming mainlanders in the way that other countries have done," Yam said.
"Hong Kong has already been through several waves of mass infection, so even if a large number of mainland tourists come here, I don't think it will constitute a fresh crisis," he said.
China on Tuesday hit out at the requirements, calling them unnecessary.
"Entry restrictions targeting China are unnecessary," foreign ministry spokesperson Mao Ning told a regular news briefing.
"COVID response measures need to be science-based and proportionate," she said. "They should not be used for political manipulation. There should not be discriminatory measures against certain countries."
More than a dozen countries have imposed travel regulations on travelers from China, with the United States requiring negative COVID-19 tests within two days of departure or proof of recovery in the past 90 days.
France, Italy, Spain and Austria have all imposed testing requirements, after Brussels said it "strongly encouraged" member states to screen people arriving from China.
Similar restrictions are in place in Australia, Canada, the U.K., Israel, Taiwan and South Korea, while authorities in Ghana, India, Qatar and Morocco have also imposed testing requirements. (KB/RFA)