It used to be an international business center, the lively, vibrant commercial gateway to China and the rest of Asia.
But after weeks of lobbying by Hong Kong’s global business community for the government to ease border restrictions and harsh mandatory quarantine to bring it in line with other trade hubs, the authorities have instead responded with even tougher measures.
At his regular press conference on Tuesday, Hong Kong’s CEO, Carrie Lam, announced that most exemptions from the city’s mandatory and self-financed quarantine periods of up to 21 days will soon be canceled. The government followed it up on Wednesday by announcing that Covid patients would need to spend another two weeks in hospital after they had recovered.
Hong Kong has only reported one local case since mid-August and, eager to get China to reopen its borders with the city, Lam has made it clear that she has prioritized Beijing’s demands for zero Covid over resuming international travel and “living with the virus” .
The changes drive Hong Kong further into a life dictated by China’s strategy when the rest of the world opens up, which according to business and foreign groups drives people out of the city. Record levels of population loss are already rising as Hong Kongers flee the national security crackdown.
Hong Kong has reported relatively low 213 deaths and 12,300 pandemic cases, largely due to its early border closures. It has since developed a labyrinthine set of entry requirements depending on a traveler’s place of origin, vaccination status, visa status and quarantined hotel bookings.
The city mostly bans non-residents and requires participants to undergo up to 21 days of quarantine. Until Lam’s announcement on Tuesday, there were exceptions or shorter quarantine periods for certain residents, workers, diplomats and businessmen – controversial including Nicole Kidman to film a movie.
The rules have been changed repeatedly, sometimes suddenly banning participants from all over the country, leaving Hong Kongers stranded abroad. Mandatory self-financed quarantine has been criticized by leading healthcare professionals as unnecessarily long and potentially harmful. Along with the great changes in Hong Kong’s political freedoms and daily life, those who have moved to Asia’s world city for work are beginning to reevaluate.
“It’s the fact that it’s changing all the time,” said James Arnold, an Australian financier, just before leaving Hong Kong after living in the city with his family for five years.
“People I talk to say they do not travel again until they know. So then the pressure builds up, and now the conversation reads: I have not met my mother in two years.
“With Hong Kong in particular being so opaque, it’s very difficult, and that opacity is not determined by them, it is determined by Beijing.”
A US expat living in Hong Kong said he was considering leaving Hong Kong after a decade.
“Other economies are opening up, including most recently Thailand. But if I go, I have to do three weeks in a quarantine hotel. The second reason is aging parents, and they can not come and visit me because of the restrictions.”
The number of foreign companies outside the mainland is declining, and US companies are declining for the third year in a row. Company representatives including the US Chamber of Commerce have expressed frustration not being able to attract staff or make long-term decisions, and many are now restructuring or relocating to Singapore, or to mainland Chinese cities such as Shanghai.
Last weekend, the Asia Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association warned the government that its approach risked Hong Kong’s status as a global financial center.
Facing the uncertainty surrounding the border closures on top of the deterioration security and political environment, foreign chambers of commerce have warned that many existing companies are leaving, reducing or relocating staff to other Asian cities.
A survey by the US Chamber of Commerce earlier this year showed that more than 40% of its members were considering leaving Hong Kong, but its president, Tara Joseph, said the government did not respond to their concerns. “We’re at the point where it just feels like we’re talking to a wall,” Joseph said said to Bloomberg. “So we’ve stopped writing letters by now.”
“People do not have to be in Hong Kong to access China”
Talks are underway between Hong Kong and Beijing’s counterparts to open travel between the two regions, with China insisting that Hong Kong’s approach be closely aligned with its own.
China has responded to outbreaks with an elimination strategy with locks, mass tests and travel restrictions, and has made it clear that it expects Hong Kong to maintain a similar standard of pandemic control.
And so Hong Kong seems ready to sacrifice its status as an international hub, impose long quarantines for returning residents and extra quarantines for discharged patients – a move described by a health expert just as wasteful but by another just as likely to help the negotiations with China.
Lam has said that international companies were in Hong Kong because of their access to China, and that they would therefore not want global travel to resume without their crucial access to the mainland.
But Arnold, referring to Beijing’s growing control of the city, said Lam lacked a key point: “There is a point we come to with Hong Kong, especially with changes to national security laws, where people do not have to be in Hong Kong for access to China.
“If they are comfortable working in China, they will go [to be based in China]. ”
The departing international expats and companies are joining Hong Kong’s separate and massive exodus flees the Beijing-led crackdown on democracy. A telephone survey this month by the Chinese University of Hong Kong showed that 42% of respondents indicated that they would emigrate if given the chance.
The specific effects of pandemic measures on respondents were unclear, but Dr Victor Zheng Wan-tai, deputy director of CUHK’s Institute of Asia-Pacific Studies, who conducted the study, said the exodus was driven by policy but pandemic-related push / pull factors for humans. likely to compensate each other.
“While it is conceivable that the greater seriousness of Covid-19 in Western countries may prevent intentions to leave, welcome and [increasingly] “Relaxed action in Britain, Canada and Australia is actually encouraging them to do the same,” he told the Guardian.