The dilemma Hong Kong confronts

February 07, 2022 13:58
Photo: AFP

We’re in a COVID limbo.

Before us is a fork – a fork that takes us down two paths. The first constitutes reopening Hong Kong to our very own country – to dissolve the quarantine and isolation requirements that stand as barriers prohibiting cross-border travel into the mainland; the second constitutes reopening Hong Kong to the world at large, and accepting the fact that we will, at least for the foreseeable future, remain cut-off from the mainland. Both prongs have their merits and demerits – and the following seeks to map out the considerations and weighing-up of such pros and cons.

Prior to then, one may ask – is this not a false dichotomy? Is this not a forced dilemma? Surely we can open up to both the mainland and the world concurrently, OR we can remain – perennially – cut off from both, in pursuit of the ever-so-elusive zero-COVID end objective at hand? Term the former option the “Unreserved Opening” (UO) option, and the latter “Unreserved Closure” (UC) option.

UO is not an option. The Central government would not tolerate or entertain such thoughts – at least, not until vaccination rates and immunity amongst the Chinese population are sufficient, to the point where the country is, then, prepared for the prospects of reopening the country to the world at large. Furthermore, it would be frankly reckless, impudent, even, for Hong Kong to seek to have the cake and eat it, when the deleterious consequences posed by unbridled contagion in the mainland would be devastating to the economy and population at large. There are proposals that are theoretically sound and practically feasible – this is not one of them.

UC is equally not an option. Foreign investors have repeatedly expressed their alarm at the fact that Hong Kong is imposing unprecedentedly and distinctively stringent restrictions on foreign travellers – dealbrokers, traders, and hedgefund managers are finding themselves subject to week-long quarantine restrictions that are innately anathema to the human-to-human contact demanded by high-end finance. More importantly, UC, as a policy, is killing off sectors of the local economy that depend heavily upon tourists and visitors, as well as cross-border travel to and fro the mainland. UC is precisely what has precipitated the malaise confronting us today.

So what are the upsides of the first prong – i.e. reopening to the Mainland? The upsides are obvious. Firstly, this ensures that those working in sectors that depend predominantly upon cross-border travel can now regain some semblance of job security and decent innings. It also means putting an end to the year-long, desperate wait of those who are hoping to reunite with family across the border, as well as enabling property owners and investors in Hong Kong to travel to the mainland to settle their many, long-standing residual disputes (having accumulated over the past two years). Fundamentally, this is the only move that could restore the confidence and trust of our mainland compatriots in our city’s ability to serve and cater to interests of individuals including their own – without their presence, our tourism, retail, and service sectors would flounder, and flounder terribly.

This is not to say that there are no downsides. After all, Hong Kong’s value to its own country remains its internationalism. Synchronisation with the standards imposed by the Mainland is not an option – but a necessity, if we are seeking to reopen borders. As noted by many a prominent commentator and pundit in the Mainland, it is high time that Hong Kong made up its mind, and resolutely adopted the harsh – but effective – measures that the mainland has leant upon in nipping the pandemic in its buds. Some of us may not like the way our compatriots do things – but even then, we must give it to them: China has considerably outperformed counterparts of comparable populations (e.g. India and the United States) in its response to the pandemic, through resolute and precise tracking, swift lockdowns, and a significant emphasis placed upon efficient rooting-out of any and all COVID-19 cases – through targeted treatments, of course.

Let us now consider the second option – that is, reopening Hong Kong to the world at large. The benefits are apparent. We’re a financial center – we’re also a cosmopolitan city that had long prized itself for its openness, liberties, and pluralism. These virtues must be staunchly and resolutely upheld, even if they have indeed been dented, in order to retain talents, as well as to pull in fresh blood and capital. Reopening our borders to the world would allow us to draw in investors and high-quality workers from the world – especially from Southeast Asia, Europe, and Latin America, where economies devastated by the pandemic are themselves vying hard to capture/convince their talents to stay behind and build where they are. Hong Kong has no time to lose, per this view: it would be futile to seek the elimination of COVID-19, especially if this comes at the expense of our economic resilience and financial robustness.

The trouble with this view, of course, is that to the extent that we deem this argument to be resoundingly persuasive, it behoves stakeholders in Hong Kong – those with power and privilege – to articulate the case clearly and loudly to Beijing, to make the case that such considerations must be weighed over the aforementioned concerns and upsides in association with the tradeoff. This is by no means an impossible task, but one must consider prudently and carefully how the argument could be made, especially given the spiraling situation in Hong Kong. In any case, a safer and surer bet, I’d suggest, is to boost vaccination rates and normalise testing, as a means of ensuring that we can eliminate or at least vastly reduce the incidental rates of severe cases of COVID-19. This is a point of convergence across all four possible options.

As a layperson, I dare not weigh in over whether we ought to adopt either of the above prongs. But if there’s one thing that’s clear, it’s that both UC and UO are non-starters. We cannot afford to remain trapped – continuously and to no avail – in this limbo. We need an exit from this purgatory, lest we descend further, and into the darkest circles of Dante’s Inferno.

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Assistant Professor, HKU