Hong Kong’s next leader says city needs to work harder on COVID-19

HONG KONG — Hong Kong’s new chief executive John Lee said on Tuesday the city still needs to work hard to control the coronavirus and increase vaccination rates.

Lee, who returned home after meeting with Communist Party officials in Beijing, said Hong Kong must control the spread of COVID-19 to create favorable conditions for resuming regular travel to mainland China.

“We still have cases of infection, between 200 and 300 cases (daily), and vaccination rates for the second dose have yet to reach 90%,” Lee told reporters after landing at Hong Kong airport.

He said he explained to Chinese Premier Li Keqiang that there have been many requests to resume normal travel between the semi-autonomous city and the mainland.

The city faced its worst COVID-19 outbreak earlier this year, largely caused by the highly transmissible Omicron variant.

Over 1 million residents have been infected during the outbreak, with daily cases peaking at over 30,000. Since then, according to the authorities, infections have dropped to about 300 a day.

China has imposed strict entry restrictions on travelers from Hong Kong since the pandemic began, requiring them to complete mandatory quarantines ranging from seven days to several weeks. China also closed its borders to most international travel.

On Monday, Lee received his official letter of appointment in Beijing, a month before he is due to take over the city’s leadership. He also met with Chinese President Xi Jinping and other senior officials.

Lee’s appointment comes amid an ongoing political crackdown in Hong Kong, nearly three years after anti-government protests rocked the city in 2019. He won an uncontested election, receiving over 99% of all votes from an electoral committee composed mostly of pro-Beijing members.

Critics say Beijing has tightened its grip on Hong Kong, restricting freedoms with the imposition of a tough new national security law and changes to its election laws that bar pro-democracy candidates from running for office.

Lee, a Beijing supporter, is known for his support of the national security law, which outlaws subversion, secession, terrorism and foreign collusion to interfere in the city’s affairs. Over 150 people have been arrested since the law came into force in June 2020.

“Hong Kong has embarked on the right path since Hong Kong implemented the National Security Law,” Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman Zhao Lijian said on Tuesday. “We believe that the Pearl of the Orient will shine again.”

Prior to his election victory, Lee was the city’s second most senior official. He spent most of his civil service career in the police and later in the security office.

Lee is scheduled to be sworn in as Hong Kong’s chief executive on July 1, the 25th anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover from Britain to China.

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