Re-opening Hong Kong a must

May 10, 2022 15:09
Photo: Bloomberg

Hong Kong’s value to its country remains its openness, cosmopolitanism, and fundamental willingness to embrace and take on the unknown. It is its internationalism, as opposed to inward-looking nativism and localism, that has rendered the city a pivotal gateway through which China accesses the world. It is also the city’s distinctive blend of open and convenient travel, unfettered (relatively) border access, relatively low taxes, and metropolitan vibrancy, that have lured generations of exceptional foreign and international talents to work in the city.

Our status as a financial nexus and hub does not exist in a vacuum – it exists against a backdrop of extraordinary tenacity and receptiveness towards strangers and ‘foreigners’, one that has equipped us with the resilience and fortitude to stand strong in face of adversities that confront us collectively.

It is with this in mind that I must iterate – and reiterate: reopening Hong Kong is a must. We have seen waves of dislocation, relocation of companies’ headquarters to rival cities in the region, such as Singapore and Tokyo. Senior executives and leading experts in industries are vacating our city, in favour of cities that have progressively moved on and embraced more dexterous and people-oriented COVID-19 policies, ones that allow for – sensibly – the free movement of labour in and out. Bankers, investors, consultants, and entrepreneurs find the quarantine and travel restrictions regime in Hong Kong both stifling and vastly alienating, thereby estranging them from our city. In other words, the very bread and butter of our economy – the brokered deals and joint ventures that have rendered our financial industry the flourishing gem that it had long been – is undergoing an existential crisis.

Reopening Hong Kong is by no means a policy motivated by the desire to ‘placate’ the ‘laowais’ – those who have followed my writings for a long while would know that I am no bourgeoise neo-colonialist; nor do I fetishise expatriates for the sake of having ‘foreigners’ in Hong Kong. Instead, and I want to be very clear about this – these very individuals who are ditching our city en masse, are by no means ‘foreigners’: these include folks who had long made this place their home, who had contributed and paid taxes for decades, who had proudly identified as Hong Kongers, till the rigid and unrelenting wave of COVID-19 measures over the past two years rendered them disillusioned and jaded about the prospects of living in Hong Kong. Let’s cut to the chase – for many of those who have boarded flights out of Hong Kong over the past 18 months, it’s not the politics, it’s not the government (per se), it’s instead the city’s bizarre and doctrinaire twilight-zone COVID-19 policy.

We have neither the responsiveness and adaptiveness of some of the (albeit not all) local and regional governments in the mainland; nor, indeed, have we undertaken the necessary steps of boosting uptake of effective vaccination (especially amongst the elderly and immunocompromised) in face of the almost-certainly-uncurtailable spread of Omicron and its sub-variants. We have exhibited neither the foresight to engage in effective preventative and shielding measures to protect the lives of the old and the young, nor the primitive capacity of ensuring that quarantine targets exclusively those who are most likely to be ill and/or contagious. It is hence through a smorgasboard of scattered responses that we have arrived at the painful limbo constituting our city between February and April this year.

If Hong Kong is to regain the hearts and minds of bankers, investors, and high net-worth individuals, the least we could do is to implement genuinely pragmatic and reasonable measures concerning social distancing and quarantine. Lift isolation requirements for triple-jabbed and previously infected individuals who test negative. Allow folks to home-isolate in lieu of isolating in hotels (which would be much better off converted into livable temporary housing and/or rooms for staycations – whatever tickles the fancy of Hong Kongers, whilst answering to their genuine needs and desires). Do not impose unduly harsh and unnecessarily repetitive testing requirements. We need a clear and unambiguous signal that Hong Kong remains open for business – and that businesses should feel that they’re here to stay, as opposed to flee in face of ever-tightening COVID-19 policies.

There are certain ideologues who enjoy framing the debate in extraordinarily stark terms – that those who stand against a unyielding and ossified stance on COVID-19 policies in Hong Kong, are thereby committing a moral blunder. Yet here, let us not forget the very maxim that has propelled our country to the successes it sees today – feeling the stones as one crosses the river, requires one to be a pragmatic observer, listener, and steerer, especially when one is steering a most ponderous ship, that requires equal portions of a sense of responsibility, and a modicum of commonsense. Re-opening HKSAR requires gumption and conviction – could there be such qualities exhibited by our political leaders in the weeks to come? Well, the jury’s out on this one.

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Assistant Professor, HKU