For Hong Kong to be back, it must fully reopen

November 03, 2022 10:32
Photo: Reuters

This past week has been a rarity of sorts in Hong Kong – with the FinTech week, Financial Summit, a summit on the city’s relations with ASEAN coalescing around the same five days or so, and the Rugby Sevens due to occur over this weekend (I, for one, am certainly looking forward to attending).

The administration has emphasised repeatedly that Hong Kong is ‘back’.

And in many ways, they could well be right – large-scale events where guests are no longer required to adhere to hyper-stringent masking regulations; tourists and visitors trickling in as we transition sharply from a one-week quarantine requirement to a three-four-day hybrid arrangement, to, finally, an approach that is more broadly sensible and aligned with the world at large, a “0+3” approach.

But it’s not enough. It’s not enough, when folks coming in would still have to spend three days dining either out of their own rooms, takeaways, or the most inconvenient public spaces (where, curiously, the risk of spreading COVID-19 does not diminish by much, if at all). It’s not enough, when the plethora of complex scans and rescans, vaccine records and re-records effectively pepper the everyday routines of ordinary citizens. It’s not enough, when masking restrictions are only partially, as opposed to comprehensively, lifted – given the vast inconveniences that doing so poses for some. I am not opposed to masking: I am, however, opposed to masking unnecessarily and with no precise target in mind.

It's clear that COVID-19 had been a threat, and that the Hong Kong administration’s approach in the first 16 months of the pandemic had been a resounding success. It’s equally clear that as the rest of the world moves to reopen, the Hong Kong administration ought to heed the demands and needs of the global community that benefits from Hong Kong’s openness – and indeed, John Lee’s cabinet has undertaken proactive steps in seeing to the city’s progressive relaxation of such requirements. But what remains fundamentally unclear, is the end-game that would emerge – is, indeed, the final stretch that lies ahead of us.

What lies ahead? What is the prognosis? Where is the exit plan? When can we truly move from 0+3 to 0+0, and then freedom? These are questions that indubitably many amongst those who had rocked up to Hong Kong’s historic financial summit this past week wanted answers for; but, allow me to be blunt and crass here – it shouldn’t be the case that Hong Kong caters exclusively to financiers and heavyweights in the finance industry. They matter. But it is the voices of ordinary Hong Kongers, the middle-class auntie or the working-class labourer working away in a construction site in Tuen Mun, that ought to matter more.

We need to recognise that the ultimate arbitrators and beneficiaries from the loosening-up of COVID-19 policies should and must be the Hong Kong public. The public who have spent years complying conscientiously and vocally with the strictest of restrictions; the public who have been pivotal to our continued success and flourishing as a leading cosmopolitan city and metropolis in the world; the public who genuinely have suffered the bulwark of the costs – ranging from the mental health pressures to the huge inconveniences extracted out of them under the current restrictions. I believe in Hong Kong’s future, and I will believe that it is back, only when we resume in full our openness. Only by eschewing by-now unnecessary restrictions, could we truly be an open, international, and world-class city, once again.

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Assistant Professor, HKU