By Jessie Yeung and Kathleen Magramo, CNN
Chinese President Xi Jinping will visit Hong Kong next week to mark the 25th anniversary of the city’s handover to China, state media reported on Saturday — the leader’s first trip outside the mainland since the pandemic began.
“Xi Jinping will attend the celebration of the 25th anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to the motherland and the inauguration ceremony of the sixth government of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region,” state news agency Xinhua said.
The confirmation comes after two top Hong Kong officials tested positive for Covid-19 this week, raising concerns over a potential visit by state leaders for the July 1 celebrations, which include the swearing in of the city’s new leader on the anniversary of its 1997 handover from British rule.
Secretary for Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Erick Tsang and director of the Chief Executive’s Office Eric Chan both tested positive through nucleic acid tests and are undergoing isolation, a Hong Kong government statement said on Thursday.
Their cases had cast doubt on whether Xi would risk entering the city, given China’s stringent zero-Covid policy — as well as on the robustness of the city’s “closed-loop” arrangement, which requires officials to avoid public engagements and enter quarantine ahead of the planned ceremonies.
As China sticks to a byzantine approach of snap lockdowns, mass testing and quarantining, Chinese officials appear to be taking extra precautions not to catch the virus.
Xi has not left mainland China since the outbreak of the pandemic more than two years ago — but even before Saturday’s confirmation of his visit, the Hong Kong government had started to prepare for the arrival of a delegation of state leaders from across the still largely sealed border with the mainland.
Top Hong Kong officials entered the closed loop system on Thursday, under which they can only travel between home and work by private vehicle and must spend a night in a quarantine hotel on the eve of the handover anniversary. They are also subject to daily testing for Covid-19.
“Mr Tsang and Mr Chan last went to work on June 22 and June 20 respectively. They wore masks and followed relevant disease prevention measures at work, including rapid antigen tests conducted daily with negative results obtained. They have no recent travel history,” the government statement said.
The statement made no mention of the two officials’ symptoms.
Chan is set to become the city’s No. 2 official on July 1, as incoming Hong Kong leader John Lee takes the helm.
Despite high vaccination rates and a reduction in overall cases, the Hong Kong government remains committed to its own “zero Covid” style policy, maintaining stringent social distancing and contact tracing measures, as well as tight border restrictions — including a mandatory seven day hotel quarantine for all arrivals.
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Additional reporting by CNN’s Wayne Chang, Larry Register, Martin Goillandeau and Hannah Ritchie.