Hong Kong’s preparations for a coronavirus vaccine have become the latest battleground between its government and part of the public sceptical about Beijing’s rising influence in the city.
A year after Hong Kong experienced its worst anti-government protests in more than two decades, the administration of Hong Kong’s leader Carrie Lam is facing a struggle to convince citizens it will not force them to take vaccines developed in mainland China.
“The political situation in Hong Kong is very sensitive so the Hong Kong government is trying to play this very carefully,” said Ronny Tong, a top adviser to Ms Lam, in an interview with the Financial Times.
The rapid procurement of vaccines is essential for the Asian financial hub, 26 per cent of whose economy is dependent on trade, tourism, travel and logistics.
The protests, which started as opposition against an extradition law, drove away mainland Chinese tourists in 2019. They were followed immediately by the coronavirus pandemic, which all but shut down the territory’s travel and hospitality industry.
Beijing in June imposed a national security law on the territory in response to the protests while the government has launched a growing crackdown on dissidents, activists, journalists and opposition politicians.
But although the government has managed to largely quell opposition, it still faces a challenge convincing the public that its overriding loyalty to Beijing is not informing its policy on vaccines.
“Let’s don’t try to politicise what is a scientific issue for the good of Hong Kong,” Ms Lam said this week. Earlier in the month she slammed the “malicious spreading of rumours, people stigmatising and politicising the vaccine procurement”.
Mr Tong, a former politician and barrister who is also a non-official member of Ms Lam’s de facto cabinet, the Executive Council, said the vaccine rollout was likely to be affected by the city’s tense local politics with many people distrustful of China.
He said he expected some Hong Kongers to refuse to take Chinese-made vaccines.
“We can’t push ahead with draconian measures, like keeping people at home and not allowing them to come out until they have tested negative,” he said.
The territory has said it has reached vaccine agreements with Chinese pharmaceutical maker Sinovac Biotech and Germany’s BioNTech and its mainland Chinese partner Fosun Pharma. The government has also ordered vaccines from Oxford-AstraZeneca.
Ms Lam has said vaccines could start to become available as soon as the first quarter of 2021 and a majority of the population would be vaccinated during the year. The vaccines would go first to priority groups, such as the elderly and medical workers.
She said on Wednesday the public would be able to choose which vaccines they could take, in a sharp turnround from previous comments.
Part of the public scepticism in Hong Kong about mainland Chinese vaccines may stem from China’s past vaccine scandals.
Arisina Ma of the Hong Kong Public Doctors’ Association said the government’s decision to pick a Chinese vaccine raised questions as to whether the move was political, as Sinovac had yet to release phase 3 trial results for its inoculation. “Most of my colleagues are adopting a wait-and-see approach,” she said.
But William Chui, president of the Society of Hospital Pharmacists of Hong Kong, said Sinovac “could maintain a stable supply of vaccines” to Hong Kong. “You have no other choice but China,” he said, adding that Sinovac’s jab was based on more conventional technology with a longer record than some other coronavirus vaccines.
George Leung, the chief executive officer at the Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce, said only a small portion of people were sceptical about Chinese vaccines and the business community was looking forwards to “a strong revival” in economic activity in the second half of 2021.
Yet the government was worried enough about how many Hong Kongers would participate in the inoculation schemes that pro-establishment lawmakers have suggested offering cash incentives of up to HK$5,000 ($645) to residents who were vaccinated.
“It’s an issue of trust in China,” said one Hong Kong resident, Jony Chan, summing up why so many ordinary people doubted the efficacy of the mainland vaccines.