Hong Kong says it’s back open for business. Will the world buy it?

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Hong Kong

At a glitzy finance summit in Hong Kong this week, the city’s leader triumphantly told a room packed with top Wall Street executives that the Asian hub was back in business. “The worst is behind us,” he declared.

Two days later, tens of thousands of rugby fans descended on the city’s largest stadium for the Hong Kong Sevens, its biggest (and usually booziest) annual sporting event, which had been suspended since 2019 due to political unrest, and, later, Covid-19.

The two high-profile international events sent a clear message: After almost three years of border closures, mandatory quarantines, and restrictions on businesses and social gatherings, Hong Kong was finally reopening.

For much of the pandemic, the semi-autonomous Chinese city maintained some of the region’s most stringent restrictions, including one of the world’s longest mandatory quarantines for international arrivals. With the economy tanking and concerns mounting that Hong Kong was being left behind as the world moved on, the government finally threw open the city’s doors in September and ended formal quarantine to the relief of millions of people.

“We were, we are and we will remain one of the world’s leading financial centers,” vowed Hong Kong leader John Lee at Wednesday’s summit, attended by more than 200 investors from 20 countries. “You can take that to the bank.”

Hong Kong leader John Lee during the Global Financial Leaders Investment Summit on November 2.

Speaking on Friday ahead of the kickoff of the Sevens, Hong Kong Rugby Union CEO Robbie McRobbie hailed the return of the tournament as a “catalyst, watershed,” a symbol that “Hong Kong is still a vibrant, resilient city.”

But experts warn the push to revive Hong Kong, while welcome and long overdue, faces many challenges ahead.

The past few years of isolation, which coincided with an ongoing political crackdown, have taken their toll, they said. Despite what Lee and other leaders insist, the Hong Kong that’s reopening is not the same city the world knew before the pandemic – and the true impact of that change remains to be seen.

Last year, as many destinations reopened to travelers and relaxed restrictions, Hong Kong appeared to be stuck in a different reality.

Restaurants, bars and gyms were frequently forced to shutter or limit their hours. Residential buildings were placed under lockdown for days. At one point, public gatherings were capped at two people. And most residents didn’t leave the city for years, unable or unwilling to spend up to three weeks in hotel quarantine at their own cost upon return.

Businesses were hit hard. The Sevens tournament makes up 95% of the Hong Kong Rugby Union’s revenue, so “we’ve had three years of redundancies and cutbacks,” said McRobbie.

Many disillusioned residents chose to leave permanently; this past year, the city recorded its steepest drop in population since records began in 1961. Companies, too, began eyeing other locations – most notably Singapore, Hong Kong’s longtime regional rival.

But Hong Kong authorities, eager to reopen the border with mainland China – which still shows no sign of easing its strict zero-Covid policy that aims to stamp out infections – remained reluctant to loosen restrictions for fear cases would spike and close that door.

Then, a severe outbreak fueled by the highly contagious Omicron variant at the start of the year put an end to Hong Kong’s hope of maintaining zero daily cases.

Under mounting public pressure, the government lifted flight bans with certain countries and shortened hotel quarantine in March – but these small concessions did little to lure people back.

According to media reports in August, some Wall Street banks warned their executives would only attend Wednesday’s finance summit if there was quarantine-free travel – a widely-speculated factor behind the government’s ultimate decision to scrap quarantine.

Finance leaders in the city breathed a sigh of relief at the news.

“We’ve been closed for too long,” said Sebastian Paredes, CEO of Singaporean bank DBS’ Hong Kong operations. “We are beginning to open up following the other parts of the world that have already opened up. And this is a tangible demonstration that Hong Kong is back.”

Attendees at the Global Financial Leaders' Investment Summit in Hong Kong on November 2.

Alicia Garcia-Herrero, chief Asia Pacific Economist of French investment bank Natixis, agreed the week’s dual big events were “a big sign of Hong Kong moving away from Covid restrictions to a new world.”

However, the remaining restrictions pose a competitive disadvantage.

International visitors must take Covid tests for seven straight days after arrival in Hong Kong, and for the first three days are barred from restaurants, bars and gyms. But the testing doesn’t stop there – bars and clubs that don’t serve food require proof of a negative rapid antigen test from all patrons.

A mask mandate – indoors and outdoors – is also in effect, though photos of the finance summit show attendees sitting at tables without face coverings. They included the city’s Financial Secretary Paul Chan, who was declared a “recovered case” by health authorities after testing positive for Covid upon arrival from a trip abroad on Tuesday.

Hong Kong's Financial Secretary Paul Chan makes a speech at the Global Financial Leaders Investment Summit in Hong Kong on November 2, 2022.

These rules are “still largely prohibiting the overseas travel market,” said McRobbie, the Hong Kong rugby chief. Before the pandemic, roughly half the fans at the Sevens came from abroad; this year, that number is “negligible,” he said.

The long stretch of isolation and financial hardship has also created challenges for companies hoping for a comeback. Many people have left the sports and events sectors in the past few years in favor of more stable jobs, leaving the industry short staffed, McRobbie added.

This partial reopening has left the city in an awkward Covid limbo, said Vera Yuen, an economics lecturer at the University of Hong Kong.

“If we want to open up our border with the Mainland China, our restriction is too lenient … so it’s not allowed,” she said. “But then if we want to open ourselves up to the world, we are still too stringent. We are now stuck in between, hoping to see better policies in the future.”

Others also warn of growing political challenges. “Clouds are certainly coming to Hong Kong from different angles,” said banker Garcia-Herrero, pointing to the West’s response to the sweeping national security law Beijing imposed on Hong Kong in 2020.

Under this law, pro-democracy activists have been jailed or exiled, independent newsrooms shut down, and former lawmakers targeted. Meanwhile, authorities have changed school curricula to emphasize Chinese history and culture, and pushed greater economic cooperation in the Greater Bay Area, a national scheme to link China’s southern Guangdong province closer with Hong Kong and Macao.

The law has been widely criticized by foreign governments and human rights organizations, with the United States sanctioning Lee and other top Hong Kong officials over their role in the crackdown. Hong Kong authorities have repeatedly claimed the law has restored order and stability after the city’s 2019 anti-government, pro-democracy protests.

For the US and the European Union, the national security law and crackdown represent “a change in the rules of the game in what was agreed upon,” said Garcia-Herrero.

These rising tensions could spell trouble for Hong Kong’s trade and diplomatic relationships with other countries. Hong Kong is afforded more freedoms than other Chinese cities, thus has long been seen as a gateway between the mainland and the West – a position that looks increasingly precarious as its civil liberties erode.

“The West would now understand that Hong Kong is not only part of China, but it’s closer to China than before,” said Yuen, the economics lecturer. “The worst scenario is that the West would treat Hong Kong as the same as the mainland China, and then Hong Kong would suffer the kind of sanctions.”

And this drawing closer together is likely to continue. In an effort to stem the brain drain, the government is spending 30 billion Hong Kong dollars ($3.8 billion) to draw in global businesses and fresh talent – which Yuen said is expected to “attract a lot of mainland workers” who may be eager to escape an even more dire job market across the border.

Despite these geopolitical frictions, some argue Hong Kong’s innate advantages will allow a revival – even if the city is heading in a different direction than before.

Asia doesn’t have many other financial centers that can match Hong Kong’s open regulatory environment, low salaries tax and existing financial infrastructure – “therefore, even if the image may be tarnished a little bit, there are not many other places to go,” said Garcia-Herrero.

Yuen echoed this point, saying the city’s proximity to China remains appealing to businesses and investors hoping to tap into the vast and lucrative mainland market.

Travelers in the departure hall at Hong Kong International Airport following the government's scrapping of hotel quarantine, on September 26.

“We can plug into China and sort of maintain the status as having a little bit of autonomy, and (being) different from them, given different Covid policies and (systems of) governance,” she said.

But, both experts acknowledged, the path forward is now fraught with new risks. International businesses may come to Hong Kong, but be warier in how much they invest in the city, keeping in mind the threat of US sanctions and regional conflict.

Today’s Hong Kong is increasingly under Beijing’s control, with China growing more assertive on the world stage as leader Xi Jinping enters a third term in power surrounded by loyalists. Those rising tensions between China and its rivals have caused growing divides “as the world deglobalizes,” said Garcia-Herrero – effects that inevitably spill over into Hong Kong, caught in the middle.

“It will never be, in my opinion, what it used to be in terms of the openness of Hong Kong to both the West and the East,” she said.

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