Relaunching HK won't be easy even when the virus crisis ends

February 17, 2020 15:37
Returning Hong Kong back to its old vibrant self won’t be easy even when the current virus crisis blows over, given the various unresolved political and social issues, the author says. Photo: Reuters

Last month, Chief Executive Carrie Lam led a large delegation to the World Economic Forum in Davos in an attempt to relaunch Hong Kong, where the economy had slipped into recession after months of violent protests. The timing was unfortunate because the coronavirus threat increased the city’s isolation, with canceled flights.

On Jan. 23, the chief executive held a cocktail reception to reassure 200 business and political leaders that Hong Kong was back. But that was also the day that China locked down Wuhan, a city of 11 million people. That act sent a much louder message: The virus wasn’t under control and Hong Kong wasn’t a safe place to invest or even visit.

Actually, the disease also presented an opportunity to Lam. She was lambasted for inaction and stubbornness during the 2019 demonstrations over a widely detested extradition bill that she withdrew only after 11 weeks of increasing violence. The health crisis gave her a chance to demonstrate leadership and imagination.

For quite a while, the Hong Kong administration didn’t appear overly concerned about the coronavirus, perhaps because the mainland hadn’t taken it seriously.

Upon Lam’s return, after a slew of high-level meetings, including with health experts, she raised that same day Hong Kong’s response to the health threat to “Emergency,” the highest level. It was touted as a dazzling display of decisiveness. But this, it subsequently transpired, was what Shanghai and Beijing had done the previous day.

The chief executive also announced the suspension of flights and high-speed train services to and from Wuhan. This was effectively meaningless since Wuhan was in lockdown and there were no flights or train service from there.

It is striking that so much of what Lam did was a reflection of what was happening in the mainland.

Instead of sealing the border, as some of her advisers proposed, the chief executive opted for only restricting entry by residents of Hubei province, of which Wuhan is the capital, a move she called “a very stringent measure.”

That move was taken with the consent of mainland authorities. The day after the Hong Kong announcement, the official Xinhua news agency reported that Hubei had issued an order forbidding its residents to travel to Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan.

Many of the mainlanders crossing the busy Hong Kong-mainland border are tourists. The chief executive announced Jan. 28 that Beijing had agreed to cease issuing permits for individual visits, which accounted for 50 percent of mainland visitors, as well as group tours, which accounted for “20-plus percentage points,” thus removing “a large chunk of the source of mainland visitors coming to Hong Kong.”

But the opposition camp still demanded the shutdown of all border crossings to prevent further infections.

Lam said keeping mainland Chinese out of Hong Kong would be discriminatory, and cited the World Health Organization, which had cautioned against travel restrictions that promote stigma or discrimination.

On Jan. 28, the chief executive announced the closure of six of 14 border checkpoints, including all rail and ferry links with the mainland, and argued that the move could be seen as a “partial” border shutdown.

To pressure the government into a total shutdown, a union of hospital workers announced Feb. 1 a five-day strike the following week. On Feb. 3, the first day of the strike, the government announced closure of more border crossings. Two days later, it announced that beginning Feb. 8, anyone arriving from the mainland would be quarantined for 14 days, effectively closing the border without saying so.

The chief executive, it seems, takes care to align her position with that of Beijing. Perhaps, in her mind, this is what needs to be done in order to safeguard Hong Kong’s interests.

But inevitably, to some analysts, she appears to follow Beijing's lead, and put the central government’s interests ahead of those of Hong Kong. From her standpoint, this may be the best strategy to get what Hong Kong needs, without unduly provoking Beijing.

The mainland may consider closing the border unacceptable since Hong Kong is part of China. But it may understand Hong Kong’s desire to minimize its exposure and so agree to a 14-day quarantine.

In due course, the health crisis will end. But relaunching Hong Kong won’t be easy. Internal political differences, left unresolved, will hobble its desire to again become an international hub. Besides, how will US-China relations affect Hong Kong? As for mainland relations, is the Lam model right?  These are not easy questions to resolve.

– Contact us at [email protected]


Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.