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Pandemic binds Hong Kong even closer to mainland China amid omicron outbreak – The Washington Post

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HONG KONG — Bodies are piling up at Hong Kong’s hospitals so quickly that they are sitting unattended in the hallways as the mortuaries fill up. Grocery stores are stripped of food. Rumors of a citywide lockdown have sent residents into a panic and prompted a new wave of departures.
Enter Hong Kong’s pandemic savior: mainland China, which has sent doctors, nurses, construction workers and experts to the territory in recent weeks to manage the outbreak.
As Hong Kong’s covid emergency intensifies, putting immense strain on the city and its 7.5 million residents, the local government is leaning heavily on the mainland.
Amid the broader crackdown on democratic rights in the territory, observers say the crisis is providing an ideal pretext for China to further absorb Hong Kong, this time through its health care and civil service.
For two years, Hong Kong held off the pandemic. Then, everything fell apart.
The result is a further blurring of the lines between the “one country, two systems” framework under which the once-autonomous territory was meant to operate, closing the gap between previously freewheeling Hong Kong and the more restrictive mainland.
Even more than the new national security law, the coronavirus pandemic has bound Hong Kong and Beijing into a tighter embrace.
“The covid crisis has opened a boulevard to the ones in the Chinese Communist Party who had decided to kill the remaining political freedoms and elements of democracy existing in Hong Kong,” said Jean-Pierre Cabestan, an expert on Chinese politics at Hong Kong Baptist University.
What remains to be seen, Cabestan added, is whether this superimposed mainland system will be effective in managing Hong Kong, with the pandemic as a test case.
The degree of Beijing’s control over Hong Kong’s daily affairs has come a long way since protests erupted in 2019 over a law that would have allowed extraditions to mainland China because the legal systems between the two places are meant to be separate. The protests stalled during the pandemic, and Beijing was able to impose a draconian security law that gutted the opposition, jailing or exiling pro-democracy leaders.
Yet even with that law, it is the pandemic itself that has transformed the relationship between the mainland and the city as Beijing effectively takes over the management of Hong Kong’s outbreak, sending doctors, nurses and experts to the territory.
Hong Kong lost control of the pandemic once the more transmissible omicron variant began spreading, ending two years of remarkably low caseloads and coronavirus deaths. From highs of just over 100, Hong Kong is now recording tens of thousands of new infections daily.
On Wednesday, the U.S. State Department upgraded its travel advisory for Hong Kong to the highest level, “do not travel,” because of the covid risk. The advisory noted in particular that “in some cases, children in Hong Kong who test positive have been separated from parents” and isolated until they meet hospital discharge requirements.
More than 600 have died since the most recent outbreak began at the start of the year, three times more than in the previous two years. The outbreak has been disastrous for Hong Kong’s health-care system, particularly because the city’s most vulnerable are not adequately vaccinated.
Researchers at the University of Hong Kong say the cumulative number of deaths could reach over 4,000 by the end of April, with covid death rates already among the highest in the world.
In response, Hong Kong’s government — which is meant to administer the city’s local affairs — has doubled down on a “zero covid” strategy similar to the one used on the mainland. After culling thousands of hamsters, suspending flights into the territory, imposing strict social distancing restrictions and locking down parts of the city, authorities are now readying Hong Kong for mass testing.
Every resident will be tested three times later this month, and according to local media outlets, the city will be under lockdown during the testing drive.
Hong Kong officials insist that they remain in the driver’s seat, but the strategy mirrors that imposed on Wuhan during the start of the coronavirus outbreak, and then in other Chinese cities. Mainland doctors and nurses have arrived in the city to help, after authorities invoked emergency powers to waive registration and licensing requirements that are different in both places under the “one country, two systems” model. Beijing is also helping Hong Kong build new isolation facilities for covid patients.
Hong Kong’s ‘zero-covid’ policy buckles under the onslaught of omicron — but authorities won’t let it go
Rather than relying just on local experts — including at HKU, which has some of the world’s leading researchers on infectious diseases — Hong Kong has tapped Liang Wannian of China’s National Health Commission, a strong proponent of zero-covid, to help manage the crisis.
Much of this assistance came after Chinese President Xi Jinping told Hong Kong last month to manage the outbreak at all costs. Some of the mainland experts have brought with them the flag of the Chinese Communist Party, displaying it proudly on Hong Kong soil for the first time.
Hong Kong’s government in recent days has put out news releases extolling the mainland’s “staunch” and “ceaseless” national support. Chinese state media outlets have celebrated the arrival of the experts and personnel from the mainland, criticizing a Western-led pandemic strategy and celebrating China’s “socialist” model as more able to deal with the outbreak.
“Public health is about the well being of the whole population,” one columnist wrote in the Communist Party’s English-language China Daily on Tuesday. “Individual concerns and rights, including privacy, should give way to these overriding objectives.”
Steve Tsang, director of the SOAS China Institute at the University of London, said this integration is only the beginning.
“What is happening to the health sector is just a start of a process, when more and more of Hong Kong will be brought in line with practices on the mainland,” he said. China under Xi endorsed integration as early as 2017, sped it up after the anti-government protests of 2019 and is using covid to bring Hong Kong further in line, he said.
Hong Kong authorities have tried to use the presence of help from the mainland to calm and reassure residents. John Lee, the territory’s chief secretary, praised the completion of one of the isolation facilities as “miraculous.” He also promised residents that Hong Kong had enough supplies and that panic buying wasn’t necessary.
Video circulating online of grocery store in Sai Wan Ho – 清零成功 pic.twitter.com/igrIVWaxM3
The reassurance has done little, and trust in the government remains extremely low. On Tuesday afternoon, eggs and bread were nowhere to be found in the city. One grocery store on the eastern side of Hong Kong Island appeared to be empty of almost all supplies.
China has since announced it was sending 30 butchers from the mainland to restore the supply of fresh pork in the slaughterhouses.
Tsang said the effectiveness of the mainland approach is of secondary concern in Hong Kong.
“If you are a hammer, you see everything as a nail, which is essentially the approach the CCP follows,” he said, referring to the Communist Party. “If it fails, it is Hong Kong’s failure, not that of the policy — so Hong Kong must change.”
Theodora Yu in Hong Kong contributed to this report.
The latest: The CDC has loosened many of its recommendations for battling the coronavirus, a strategic shift that puts more of the onus on individuals, rather than on schools, businesses and other institutions, to limit viral spread.
Variants: BA.5 is the most recent omicron subvariant, and it’s quickly become the dominant strain in the U.S. Here’s what to know about it, and why vaccines may only offer limited protection.
Vaccines: For people under 50, second booster doses are on hold while the Biden administration works to roll out shots specifically targeting the omicron subvariants this fall. Immunizations for children under 5 became available this summer. Here’s what to know about how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections and booster history.
Guidance: CDC guidelines have been confusing — if you get covid, here’s how to tell when you’re no longer contagious. We’ve also created a guide to help you decide when to keep wearing face coverings.
Where do things stand? See the latest coronavirus numbers in the U.S. and across the world. The omicron variant is behind much of the recent spread.
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China says Biden comments likening leader Xi to a dictator ‘extremely absurd and irresponsible’

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China says Biden comments likening leader Xi to a dictator ‘extremely absurd and irresponsible’

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden’s remarks calling Chinese leader Xi Jinping a “dictator” and China a country with “real economic difficulties” drew fast condemnation from China on Wednesday, cracking open a new rift just after the two countries agreed to tentative steps to stabilize the relationship.

In Beijing, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning condemned Biden’s unusually pointed comments as “extremely absurd and irresponsible.”

The clash of words comes after Secretary of State Antony Blinken concluded a visit to Beijing on Monday that sought to break the ice in a relationship that has hit a historical low. While both sides saw those talks as productive, they did not result in any significant breakthroughs beyond an agreement to return to a broad agenda for cooperation and competition.

China’s quick response to Biden, a president known for seemingly off-script remarks that venture beyond his administration’s policies, raises questions whether his remarks would undo the limited progress that had been made in Blinken’s carefully engineered trip or whether the two sides would move on.

Biden’s characterization of China comes as the campaign for next year’s presidential election is already taking off, with Republicans accusing him of being weak on China.

Biden also was preparing to welcome Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Washington on Wednesday evening for a lavish state visit where a central theme will be a shared wariness of China.

Biden, at a fundraiser in California on Tuesday night, referred back to January and February’s two-week overflight of what the U.S. says was a Chinese spy balloon. The balloon’s surprise appearance over U.S. skies roiled relations and transfixed the American public.

Speaking to wealthy donors at the event for his 2024 reelection campaign, Biden depicted Xi as out-of-touch and embarrassed by the incident, which ended with the Air Force shooting down the balloon just off the East Coast.

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“The reason why Xi Jinping got very upset in terms of when I shot that balloon down with two box cars full of spy equipment is he didn’t know it was there,” Biden told the crowd.

“No, I’m serious,” he added. “That was the great embarrassment for dictators, when they didn’t know what happened.“

Biden also played down trade competition from China, which is the world’s second-biggest economy after the United States but struggling to emerge from COVID-era financial troubles.

“By the way, I promise you, don’t worry about China. Worry about China but don’t worry about China,” Biden said. “I really mean it. China has real economic difficulties.”

Biden’s remarks came hours after his secretary of state, in an interview with MSNBC, had called for the two countries to put the balloon incident behind them, saying it was a chapter that “should be closed.”

In Beijing on Wednesday, Mao told reporters that Biden’s remarks “go totally against facts and seriously violate diplomatic protocol, and severely infringe on China’s political dignity.”

“It is a blatant political provocation,” Mao said.

Mao also reiterated China’s version of the balloon episode, saying the balloon was for meteorological research and had been accidentally blown off course.

Administration officials signaled Wednesday that Biden had no intention of walking back his comments.

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Biden and Blinken have made clear “we will continue to responsibly manage this relationship, maintain open lines of communication with the PRC,” Vedant Patel, a State Department spokesman, told reporters, using an abbreviation for the People’s Republic of China.

“But that, of course, does not mean we will not be blunt and forthright about our differences,” including differences on the global competition between democracies and autocracies, Patel said.

U.S.-China tensions have mounted for years as rivalry builds over trade and global influence. Repeated flare-ups have helped escalate the tensions, including over the balloon, U.S. tariffs, sanctions on China, and self-ruled Taiwan.

The U.S. is pressing China to embrace direct communications between Biden, Xi and other senior U.S. and Chinese military and civilian leaders, as a channel to defuse tensions and keep incidents from escalating into open hostilities.

Despite the administration’s diplomatic efforts to soothe relations, analysts point to the Republican political pressure, and note Biden regularly seems to go off-script to criticize Xi.

Bonnie Glaser, Asia director of the George Marshall Fund of the United States, pointed Wednesday to Biden’s state of the union address in February, soon after the balloon flight, as Republican lawmakers in the audience heckled him over China and other issues. Waving a finger in the air, Biden cried out, “Name me a world leader who’d change places with Xi Jinping! Name me one! Name me one!”

For Biden, “he’s under a lot of criticism from the right. He doesn’t want to be seen as soft on China. He views Xi Jinping as a dictator,” Glaser said.

“And he’s not very good … at differentiating what should be said in public and what should be said in private,” Glaser said. “And the relationship pays a price for it. There’s no doubt about it.”

Xi was likely upset by the claim that he hadn’t been fully informed about the balloon incident, said Steve Tsang, director of the China Institute at the London University School of Oriental and African Studies and a longtime observer of Chinese politics.

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“My sense is that Xi may not want to overreact and put the relationship back on ice again,” Tsang said in an email.

The initial Republican response to Biden’s remarks was approving. “It’s an appropriate description of their system of government,” Sen. Marco Rubio, the top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said.

While Xi heads a country formally named the People’s Republic of China, he faces no limits on his terms as head of state, commander of the military and leader of the ruling Communist Party, which brooks no challenges to its authority.

In California, Biden had told donors that Xi “wants to have a relationship again.”

Blinken “went over there … did a good job, and it’s going to take time,” he said.

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Associated Press writer Seung Min Kim contributed to this report.

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Macron appeals to China’s Xi to ‘bring Russia to its senses’

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Macron appeals to China’s Xi to ‘bring Russia to its senses’

BEIJING (AP) — Chinese leader Xi Jinping called Thursday for peace talks over Ukraine after French President Emmanuel Macron appealed to him to “bring Russia to its senses,” but Xi gave no indication Beijing would use its leverage as Vladimir Putin’s diplomatic partner to press for a settlement.

Xi gave no sign China, which declared it had a “no limits friendship” with Moscow before last year’s invasion, had changed its stance since calling for peace talks in February.

“Peace talks should resume as soon as possible,” Xi said. He called on other governments to avoid doing anything that might “make the crisis deteriorate or even get out of control.”

Beijing, which sees Moscow as a partner in opposing U.S. domination of global affairs, has tried to appear neutral in the conflict but has given Putin diplomatic support and repeated Russian justifications for the February 2022 attack. Xi received an effusive welcome from Putin when he visited Moscow last month, giving the isolated Russian president a political boost.

The Chinese leader said “legitimate security concerns of all parties” should be considered, a reference to Moscow’s argument that it attacked Ukraine because of the eastward expansion of NATO, the U.S.-European military alliance.

During talks earlier, Macron appealed to Xi to “bring Russia to its senses and bring everyone back to the negotiating table.”

Macron pointed to Chinese support for the United Nations Charter, which calls for respect of a country’s territorial integrity. He said Putin’s announcement of plans to deploy nuclear weapons in Belarus violated international agreements and commitments to Xi’s government.

“We need to find a lasting peace,” the French president said. “I believe that this is also an important issue for China.”

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Macron was accompanied to Beijing by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in a show of European unity.

Von der Leyen said she encouraged Xi to call Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, and the Chinese leader “reiterated his willingness to speak when conditions and time are right.”

“I think this is a positive element,” von der Leyen said.

Von der Leyen warned China against sending military equipment to Russia, echoing a warning Wednesday by NATO’s 31 member governments of “severe consequences” for shipments of weapons or ammunition.

“Arming the aggressor is a clear violation of international law,” von der Leyen said. “This would indeed significantly harm the relationship between the European Union and China.”

China is the biggest buyer of Russian oil and gas, which helps prop up the Kremlin’s revenue in the face of Western sanctions. That increases Chinese influence, but Xi appears reluctant to jeopardize that partnership by pressuring Putin.

“China has always adhered to an objective and fair position on the issue of the Ukraine crisis,” said a Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Mao Ning. “We have been an advocate of a political solution to the crisis and a promoter of peace talks.”

Also Wednesday, the French and Chinese governments announced agreements including the purchase of 160 Airbus aircraft by a Chinese leasing company and for their companies to collaborate on nuclear, solar, wind power and biofuel development.

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ITF resumes tennis in China with no word on Peng Shuai

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ITF resumes tennis in China with no word on Peng Shuai

TOKYO (AP) — The International Tennis Federation will play tournaments this year in China with no word of a resolution to the case of Chinese doubles player Peng Shuai.

Peng disappeared from public view shortly after accusing a former high-ranking Communist Party official — in a web posting in November of 2021 — of sexual assault.

The ITF, which conducts tournaments below the elite level in its World Tennis Tour, lists its first tournament in China on June 5-11 at Luzhou. The ITF’s last full season in China was 2019, prior to COVID-19.

“The ITF anticipates a resumption of tournament activity within China for each of the ITF Tours later this year,” the ITF said in a statement.

The WTA, which runs the sport’s top-tier women’s events, hasn’t announced if it will resume staging tournaments in China.

In late 2021, WTA Chairman and CEO Steve Simon announced that the WTA would be suspending all of its tournaments — including the season-ending WTA Finals — that were held in China because of concerns over Peng, costing the tour millions.

The men’s ATP has scheduled several event for later this year in China. It canceled 2022 events because of COVID-19 restrictions in China.

Peng gave a controlled interview a year ago during the Winter Olympics in Beijing and had dinner at the event with International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach. She left many questions unanswered and has largely been out of public view since then.

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Simon has repeatedly called for a “formal investigation” into the allegations made by Peng, and has asked to meet privately with Peng. It’s not clear those conditions have been met.

In a statement announcing the ITF men’s and women’s tournaments returning to China, ITF President David Haggerty said the sport’s world governing body had to invest in the professional events that worked as “the main artery for the top level of the game.”

“As the global guardians of the game, we are passionate about providing a pathway for up and coming talent in all countries, and providing more opportunities for players to play closer to home,” Haggerty said, adding that the ITF was pleased to be returning to countries such as China, Burundi, Cyprus, Trinidad & Tobago and Taiwan.

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AP Tennis: https://apnews.com/hub/tennis and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

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