Thousands fleeing to mainland China as Hong Kong outbreak widens

Chinese in Hong Kong are going to great lengths to get back to the mainland as Covid-19 takes hold in the formerly virus-free financial hub, posing a challenge for officials fearful of contagion.

On Friday, hundreds of people queued at a border checkpoint between Hong Kong and Shenzhen, with many waiting hours to get through the checks and processes. Most have family ties with the mainland or are Chinese nationals studying or working in Hong Kong. Testing In Hong Kong As Government to Mass Test Whole City for Covid With Beijing’s Help

They join a stream of people racing to leave Hong Kong- departures via land routes, all but one of which go directly to mainland China, tripled to 24,697 in the first 17 days of February from a year earlier, according to Immigration Department data. 

While Hong Kong’s four-digit daily case numbers pale in comparison with other parts of the world, the outbreak is now the worst on record for China and bigger than even the crisis in Wuhan at the start of the pandemic.

Health-care resources have become increasingly strained, but the recent deaths of two small children, both too young to be vaccinated, have provided additional fuel to the exodus to mainland China, where strict and swift anti-virus measures have typically stamped out flareups quickly.

“Hong Kong only started to vaccinate children after things hit the fan, which is much slower than the rest of the world,” said Ben Chu, a 44-year-old entrepreneur who planned to leave for Shanghai, where his wife already traveled to during the Lunar New Year holidays, on Sunday. “How can we not be worried as parents?”

Chu said his daughter, 11, has been stuck at home for weeks after Hong Kong suspended in-person school and she’s become quieter and less sociable. He wants to take her to the mainland where she can travel domestically and visit theme parks, even though they face a 21-day quarantine on arrival. He plans to get his daughter inoculated in the mainland, after becoming concerned that the crowds at vaccination centers in Hong Kong posed a risk to her health. 

The exodus is a marked turnaround for Hong Kong, which since it was returned to Chinese rule has been a beacon for mainlanders. The city’s financial industry, more Western outlook and health-care system had long been a draw, though its reputation was tarnished among Chinese by anti-Beijing protests in 2019 and 2020, which all but wiped out tourists from the mainland. 

In China, it appears scant attention is being paid to Hong Kong’s explosive outbreak. President Xi Jinping this week called for Hong Kong officials to take all necessary measures in getting the outbreak under control. The unusually direct comments, carried in pro-Beijing newspapers in the city, weren’t reproduced by state media on the mainland, a rare exclusion given the meticulous coverage of Xi by the Communist Party’s propaganda apparatus. 

Chinese media outlets have been selective in the coverage they do have of Hong Kong’s situation, which risks undermining faith in the Covid Zero strategy Beijing has made its own. Most stories have focused on dispatches of medical staff and resources to the city. 

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam was given some airtime on state broadcaster CCTV on Thursday evening. “We will definitely do whatever we can, with the strong support from the central government, Hong Kong people from all works of like will join efforts, we will surely succeed,” she was filmed as saying when greeting a mainland medical team at the border.

Chinese officials are also fearful the influx of people fleeing Hong Kong will bring cases to the mainland and have tightened measures around the southern border. All flights from Zhuhai which has a crossing with Hong Kong to Beijing have been suspended to prevent infections from spreading. Since January, Shenzhen has made arrivals from Hong Kong undertake 14 days of hotel quarantine plus seven days home isolation, up from a previous policy of a week in a hotel and a week at home.

But the onerous rules are doing little to deter people. Quarantine hotel rooms in Shenzhen and Zhuhai are in such high demand that travelers are turning to scalpers to help secure bookings, a finance industry worker told Bloomberg News, asking not to be identified due to privacy concerns. The person plans to return to the mainland next week out of concern that a lockdown will take away business opportunities in Hong Kong, and also for his child’s safety. 

Others are looking to less legal means. Shanghai police are investigating a Chinese citizen who tested positive for Covid-19 after allegedly entering illegally from Hong Kong.

Authorities in southern Chinese cities including Zhuhai, Dongguan and Huizhou are offering cash rewards of as much as 500,000 yuan ($79,000) to anyone who provides information about people illegally entering the mainland, which is occurring mainly by boat, state-run Yangcheng Evening News reported on Thursday, citing police circulars.

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