Hong Kong’s chief executive has tested positive for Covid-19 just days after interacting with his boss, President Xi Jinping of China, at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Bangkok.
John Lee was seated next to Xi during a meeting on November 18 and also stood next to him at an event on November 17, potentially one of Xi’s closest known brushes with the virus since the start of the pandemic.
China has been following a strict zero-Covid policy, routinely forcing millions into quarantines and home lockdowns despite the huge economic and psychological costs.
Neither politician wore a mask on the two occasions they met.
“[John Lee is] undergoing isolation,” the Hong Kong government said on Monday. Lee tested positive upon his return to the Chinese territory on Sunday.
The news comes as confusion deepens over the future of China’s zero-Covid policy, with any reopening closely watched by investors who hope it will pave the way for an economic recovery.
Certain cities experiencing outbreaks, such as provincial capitals Shijiazhuang and Guangzhou, were first permitted to impose less stringent restrictions but have since rolled out tougher controls.
Xi only started travelling outside of China in recent months. A brief trip to central Asia in September was his first overseas journey since January 2020, when the virus erupted out of central China.
The health of top Chinese Communist party leaders is a closely guarded secret. It is likely that Xi, who returned to China during the weekend, will remain out of public view until completing the latest quarantine requirements, which include at least five days of self-isolation.
The Chinese leader’s week-long tour of south-east Asia for the G20 summit in Indonesia and the annual Apec leaders’ meeting in Thailand marked his return to the global stage. He had a flurry of talks with peers including US President Joe Biden, as well as the leaders of France, Italy, Spain, the Netherlands, Australia, Japan and South Korea.
Xi’s last known brush with the virus was in June, when he visited Hong Kong to mark the 25th anniversary of its return to Chinese sovereignty. A Hong Kong lawmaker, Steven Ho, posed in a group photo with Xi and subsequently tested positive, but all in the picture were wearing masks at the time.
Hun Sen, Cambodia’s leader, tested positive for Covid-19 after hosting south-east Asian leaders, Chinese premier Li Keqiang and Biden just before the G20 summit.
Investors have been hoping for a greater loosening of the zero-Covid policy since November 11, when China announced several measures, including lowering the number of days in quarantine for incoming travellers and close contacts of Covid cases.
Shijiazhuang, a northern city not far from Beijing, was at the forefront of easing the draconian restrictions. On November 13, the city pivoted from a full lockdown into reopening, including abandoning population-wide Covid testing and doing away with the requirement to present negative coronavirus test results to enter buildings and public transport.
Covid cases, however, continued to spread among residents, and during the weekend, the municipal government retreated, imposing a new lockdown. It also ordered thousands of students to return home from university campuses hit hard by the latest outbreak.