HONG KONG — From week to week as infections barreled through the city, residents in Hong Kong watched the government’s coronavirus policies change.
First, officials said they didn’t have plans for social distancing in January, then promptly shut down bars and gyms and banned flights from eight countries. In February, the officials vowed to test every resident, then appeared to abandon those plans this month. And on Thursday, public beaches were closed just three days after Carrie Lam, the city’s leader, raised the possibility of relaxing Covid-19 restrictions.
As Hong Kong this week surpassed one million coronavirus cases since the beginning of the pandemic — a staggering number for a city that had single-digit daily cases for most of the health crisis — residents say the government’s seesawing virus policies have created confusion and chaos. Unable to adhere to the mainland’s zero-Covid strategy, Hong Kong officials have provided inconsistent and conflicting details on how the city will deal with its current outbreak.
Now some fear the government’s failure to get the virus under control has accelerated Beijing’s creeping authority over the semiautonomous Chinese territory.
Since the outbreak began, China has flooded Hong Kong with what it sees as necessary reinforcements, including donations of traditional Chinese medicine and protective medical gear. Chinese epidemiologists were sent to advise health officials, and more than a thousand technicians and health care workers have been dispatched for testing and patient care.
A temporary bridge has been erected to connect Hong Kong to the Chinese city of Shenzhen in order to move supplies and manpower more quickly. Dozens of construction workers have been sent in to build temporary government quarantine facilities and makeshift hospitals.
Many of Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing politicians have been quick to thank “the motherland” for its assistance. John Lee, Hong Kong’s chief secretary for administration, equated the outbreak to the 2019 pro-democracy protests that led to a sweeping crackdown from Beijing and helped usher in the National Security Law.
“Whenever Hong Kong found it difficult to overcome on our own the very huge difficulties which exceeded our capabilities, the Country would provide us with the strongest and the most reliable backing,” Mr. Lee wrote in the China Daily, an English-language newspaper owned by the Communist Party.
Others see the intervention as the latest sign that the city is being brought irreversibly under the yoke of Beijing, despite promises that it would retain a degree of independence.
“The Hong Kong people are very unhappy about Carrie Lam and the government because their incompetence has given the central government an excuse to step in and take more control,” said Jean-Pierre Cabestan, a political scientist at Hong Kong Baptist University.
Some of the policy indecision from Mrs. Lam and other officials has at times appeared to be a reaction to mounting pressure from the mainland. When cases jumped in mid-February and overburdened hospitals began treating patients on gurneys on the sidewalk, Xi Jinping, China’s top leader, warned Hong Kong officials to “make controlling the epidemic as soon as possible an overwhelming priority.”
Several days later, Mrs. Lam announced a plan to test every single resident starting in March. The city waited for more details that never came. Instead, Hong Kong’s health secretary said the government could not rule out a lockdown to accompany mass testing, contradicting earlier statements from Mrs. Lam.
With few details to hang on to and fearing the kind of lockdowns that have left people stranded at home with little food on the mainland, many Hong Kong residents rushed to buy essentials from grocery stores. As a sense of unease sank in, Mrs. Lam stopped giving regular news conferences. The criticism from her fellow pro-Beijing colleagues grew more pointed as the fatality rate from the virus among older people, a large number of whom are unvaccinated in Hong Kong, soared to among the highest in the world.
“The whole approach of the government has seemed to be chaotic,” said Lau Siu-kai, a Hong Kong scholar who advises Beijing on policy. “The objective to be achieved is not clear, and the tactic used seems to be unstable and changeable.”
“You can see all the complaints around Hong Kong these days,” he added. “It makes Beijing worried.”
Mrs. Lam reappeared in front of the media last week with a promise to communicate better to the public through daily news conferences. But when asked for more details about mass testing, she said she had none. A day later, when asked again, an exasperated Mrs. Lam scolded a reporter for “unnecessarily” taking up time.
“People like Carrie Lam and other Hong Kong officials are always anticipating Beijing’s wishes,” said Willy Lam, an adjunct professor of politics at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. “Beijing’s imprimatur is now more important than local public opinion for many leading Hong Kong officials.”
Beijing’s crackdown on pro-democracy candidates in Hong Kong and a new “patriots only” city legislature has ensured that any dissenting voices in the once freewheeling city have been silenced. Many people have been at a loss to understand swings in policy decisions now made behind closed doors.
As one example, Hong Kong has kept a ban on airlines that bring in four or more passengers who test positive for the virus, but the daily local case count is already in the tens of thousands, and some of the countries that are banned have fewer cases. Still, officials continue to emphasize the need to send those who test positive into government quarantine centers, even though Hong Kong has now recorded more than a million cases.
Researchers estimate that half of the population in Hong Kong may have already been infected.
“We feel really confused and frustrated and tired of all these so-called new policies,” said Yvonne Kai, a 46-year-old baker in Hong Kong’s busy Wan Chai district. “Different people tell us different policies every day.”
She added, “I’m feeling like we can’t trust the government.”
Last week, as officials worried about the capacity at public mortuaries and a shortage of coffins, the government suddenly announced that hair salons would reopen while bars, gyms, outdoor playgrounds and schools remained shuttered. Regina Ip, a lawmaker and adviser to Mrs. Lam, applauded the decision on Twitter.
“I urge the government to reopen also golf courses, tennis courts and other facilities for no-contact sports,” Mrs. Ip wrote.
Yet when Mrs. Lam addressed the local press on Monday, she seemed no closer to providing clarity on the city’s virus policies. Instead, she appeared to have a message for the Chinese officials who recently locked down millions of citizens in neighboring Shenzhen after discovering hundreds of coronavirus cases there.
“If you want us to follow what Shenzhen is doing,” Mrs. Lam said, “I’m afraid we are not up to it.”
On Thursday, Mrs. Lam told the media that she would also review many of the city’s tough social distancing rules. As she spoke, tall barriers were being erected at public beaches as part of measures she had promised to avoid just days earlier.
“I have a very strong feeling that people’s tolerance is fading,” she said.