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This week in politics: AOs’ Efforts against COVID Pave the Way for Carrie Lam’s Second Term

This is translated from CitizenNews' weekly digest tracking Hong Kong's political news over the past week: Administrative Officers’ Efforts against COVID Pave the Way for Carrie Lam’s Second Term(一周政情:政務官領軍抗疫 為林鄭連任鋪路

In the past week, the most prominent political news was that the epidemic has entered a new phase, with the government relaxing restrictions on gathering, and planning for vaccination. At the same time, the Commerce and Economic Development Bureau (CEDB) has entered a new phase of “handling” Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK). These two events, presided over by CE Carrie Lam's two favourite officials, Patrick Nip and Edward Yau, reflect that Lam is still looking forward to her re-election and is mobilising her administrative officer (AO) team to complete the political tasks entrusted to her by the Central Government.

Carrie Lam's two favourite Administrative Officers, Patrick Nip(right)and Edward Yau.

Beijing has requested the SAR to contain the epidemic and resume normal economic activities as soon as possible. Lam’s administration has not been able to deliver a decent report card and had to take the initiative to publicly admit its mistakes during the duty report. She admitted that her performance in fighting the epidemic was not as good as that of the Mainland, Taiwan and Macau SAR. The top brass in the HKSARG knows that if Lam is to take up another term of office, she must perform brilliantly in fighting against COVID.

Therefore, around the time of the Lunar New Year, the SAR Government took advantage of the imminent arrival of two vaccines to carry out a series of anti-epidemic operations, including surprise lockdown of buildings with outbreaks for a number of days and making it mandatory for residents to undergo virus tests. Expert consultants were also urged to endorse the Sinovac vaccine, which was only marginally effective and lacked Phase III clinical data; relaxing the opening hours of restaurants and allowing cinemas and beauty salons to resume business, but requiring customers to use LeaveHomeSafe app or register their personal information; and making an exception to the rule by asking Patrick Nip to coordinate the vaccination programme instead of FHB or Hospital Authority.

All of these arrangements include political calculations to score more points for Lam. Firstly, the surprise lockdown of residential buildings and the mandatory testing of households look similar to the standard measures taken in the Mainland to combat the epidemic. Although the time of lockdown was very short, usually at night and then lifted in the following morning to avoid affecting the residents' work, the actual results were not significant. Many residents did not return home after hearing the news, and very few positive cases were found. However, this has conveyed to Beijing the political determination of Lam’s administration, that it is not afraid to use tough measures, and that it dares to impose a wider and longer period of lockdown when necessary. This message is one that the Central Government is happy to hear.

Secondly, despite the delay in releasing the Phase III clinical data of the Sinovac vaccine, its effectiveness was only just above 50%. The confidence interval was very wide. In particular, the effectiveness data for people aged 60 or above was insufficient. Despite all the shortcomings in the data, the expert advisory panel approved the urgent use of the Sinovac vaccine in just four days and launched it in tandem with another Sino-German vaccine (Fosun-BioNTech). This decision was questioned by many medical professionals, but the government insisted that the vaccine was effective, had very few side effects, was basically safe, and was not as effective as other international vaccines, but it was better to get it than not to get it at all. This is not very convincing to the public, but in the eyes of the Central Government, it is the right thing to do to actively defend the domestic vaccine. Imagine if the SAR had vetoed the Sinovac vaccine, would it not have been a slap in the face to China internationally? Lam could not afford to make such a political mistake.

Thirdly, knowing that the epidemic was not yet under control, the government did not dare to allow food establishments to open late during the Lunar New Year holidays. Various entertainment venues remained closed. This decision does not mean that the government believes that the epidemic will drop significantly after the 7th day of the Lunar New Year and will not rebound viciously, while the major business consortia have sent an ultimatum to the government.

As the government's Employment Support Scheme ceased at the end of last year, companies have been paying rent out of their own pockets for three straight months. They will have to lay off a large number of staff if they do not resume business.

The government did not want to see a series of layoffs after the New Year holidays, so it had no choice but to relax the control on the 7th day of the New Year. This was a decision based on economic realities, but the government bundled the promotion of LeaveHomeSafe app with the relaxation, so that the number of downloads of the app for tracking personal movements exceeded one million, showing Beijing that Hong Kong can also use mobile app to monitor people's movements like the Mainland, laying the foundation for future social surveillance. This is in response to months of calls from the leftist media and is certainly a political achievement.

Why are these anti-epidemic plans, and the most crucial one, the territory-wide vaccination programme, not coordinated by health care professionals, but led by the Secretary for the Civil Service, Patrick Nip? Obviously, this is a political arrangement that serves two main purposes, one of which is to allow Nip to make up for his mistakes. He has always been Lam’s favourite, but when he was in charge of the Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Bureau, he was blamed by the Central Government for the pro-Beijing camp’s defeat in the District Council election, and was originally going to be kicked out from the cabinet. It was only after Lam’s strong support that he was transferred to the Civil Service Bureau. If he succeeds in taking charge of the vaccination campaign this time, he will be able to take credit for his achievements to compensate for his mistake. Besides, he has been fostering all civil servants to take an oath/sign a declaration of allegiance. Nip’s political allegiance has been passed, so that his career is likely brighter.

Another political effect of having Nip lead the campaign is to highlight the fact that a principal official of Administrative Officer background can also effectively carry out the various political tasks entrusted to him or her by the Central Government, without the need to hire a person outside of the civil service. If the Central Government accepts this, a major obstacle to Lam’s re-election will be removed. With such a major political consideration, it is of course not possible to leave the leadership of the epidemic in the hands of health care professionals, who, if they succeed, will only win professionally and will not benefit the AO system. If they fail, AOs will have to take the blame too.

After the removal of the pan-democrats from LegCo, the only political tug-of-war left in the political arena is the civil service system led by the AOs, and the patriotic system consisting of pro-China political parties, NPC and CPPCC members. The tug-of-war of these two systems are both aiming at the Chief Executive election in late 2021 and early 2022. All government decisions in 2021 will have a bearing on whether the election is won or lost by Lam. Carrie Lam is the head of the civil service system and is doing everything she can in the face of a siege instigated by former Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying and others. She has appointed her top AOs to plug the gaps of political attacks.

It is only from this perspective that the public can better understand why CEDB led by Edward Yau and RTHK led by Leung Ka-wing have gone from a situation where everything was negotiable and could be discussed behind the scenes to a situation where there is a complete standoff in separate ways. This has nothing to do with the personal style of Yau or Leung, but the political environment has changed. Beijing has decided that RTHK is "rebellious" and wants to “make it clean”. Many decisions were made without regard to RTHK's tradition of governance, staff morale and perceptions of the outside world, and the way to handle it is to impose top-down administrative orders.

For example, RTHK adhered to Beijing’s decision to cease airing BBC programmes, dismissed Nabela Qoser as a warning to all, punishing programmes that mocked the police, etc. After all, Leung Ka-wing had the burden of being a professional broadcaster. He still cannot make some decisions, so he was simply allowed to leave early, and an AO with no broadcasting experience was parachuted in as Director. If this political mission is achieved, it will be an important milestone for the AO system to claim credit from Beijing and to help re-elect Carrie Lam.

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