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Christopher Hui Ching-yu was appointed secretary for financial services and the treasury in April. Photo: Jonathan Wong

Hong Kong relaxes quarantine rules for largest listed firms such as Tencent and Alibaba

  • 14-day quarantine rule has been relaxed for executives of 480 of the largest companies listed in Hong Kong
  • Travellers to mainland China will still be subject to a 14-day compulsory quarantine requirement

Hong Kong has relaxed its 14-day quarantine rule for executives of 480 of the largest companies listed in the city, its newly appointed secretary for financial services and the treasury said.

Christopher Hui Ching-yu, who took the job in April, said in an interview that these companies will be able to send two directors or executives every month to the city for the signing of deals, to attend meetings and for other company affairs.

Auditors who need to visit mainland Chinese companies, as well as directors who need to come to Hong Kong for regulatory meetings, such as initial public offering hearings, have been allowed to move across the border with mainland China without being quarantined since last month.

Monday’s announcement, which confirms an earlier report by the South China Morning Post, has expanded this exemption to cover business activity beyond these two instances. The relaxation covers companies listed on the Hong Kong stock exchange and included in the Hang Seng Index, the Hang Seng China Enterprises Index or the Hang Seng Composite LargeCap, MidCap or SmallCap Index.

The relaxation will cover mainland Chinese companies such as Tencent Holdings and Post parent Alibaba Group Holding, the two largest companies listed in Hong Kong. Moreover, executives of insurer AIA or HSBC, for instance, who need to go to mainland China for these purposes, will not be quarantined on their return to Hong Kong.

The move is the Hong Kong government’s latest effort aimed at bringing back deals and other business activity to reboot the city’s economy, Hui said. The city has had to implement social distancing measures and close its borders because of the coronavirus pandemic, which has infected almost 7 million people and led to at least 400,000 deaths globally. These measures have curtailed travel for work and delayed deals as well as other business activity. The quarantine requirement is in force until July 7.


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Hong Kong and the US: how much do they rely on each other economically?

“We want to open the border step-by-step, and it will be better to allow a limited number of people first, before expanding it further. It is, however, an important step to allow large companies to resume cross-border business travel to handle their business activities,” Hui said.

“We strive to balance the need of safeguarding public health and promoting Hong Kong’s economic development. The new scheme will facilitate directors or executives of sizeable Hong Kong-listed companies to perform business activities that are essential to their operation. This is conducive to maintaining the normal business operation of these enterprises under the very dynamic and challenging business environment.”

The 480 companies for whom cross-border travel has been eased represent about 95 per cent of the total market capitalisation – HK$34 trillion (US$4.38 trillion) – of the Hong Kong stock market.

Each nominated director or executive may travel from mainland China to Hong Kong, or return to Hong Kong from the mainland only one time in each calendar month. Multiple trips by the same director or executive within the same calendar month will not be allowed.

The period of stay for directors or executives coming from the mainland to Hong Kong and for directors or executives returning from the mainland to Hong Kong should be kept to the minimum. The executives, upon arrival in or return to Hong Kong, will also be subject to medical surveillance arranged by the Department of Health for a period of 14 days.

Moreover, travellers to mainland China will still be subject to a 14-day compulsory quarantine requirement. The Hong Kong government is in discussions with mainland authorities on mutual recognition of Covid-19 testing results, so that Hong Kong travellers to the mainland can be exempted as well.

Mike Wong Ming-wai, chief executive of The Chamber of Hong Kong Listed Companies, welcomed the move, but said he wanted to see all listed companies covered. Monday’s relaxation excludes about 1,900 smaller players. “All 2,400-plus listed companies have a lot of cross-border business. It is important to relax the [quarantine] rule and resume normal business activity,” Wong said.

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Monday’s relaxation is Hui’s first policy decision since taking over from James Lau in a major government reshuffle. The 44-year-old Oxford graduate was the executive director of the Financial Services Development Council for nine months before his current appointment, and brings fresh blood to the city’s administration.

He is no stranger to listings and IPOs. Before joining the council last year, Hui was a managing director of bourse operator Hong Kong Exchanges and Clearing (HKEX) for 12 years. He also handled the launch of the Stock Connects between Hong Kong and Shanghai in 2014, and between Hong Kong and Shenzhen in 2016.


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Hui said he was keen on expanding the connect schemes further, and was working with Beijing on a cross-border wealth management connect in the Greater Bay Area. China last month announced the new connect scheme, which will allow mainland Chinese investors to buy fund products through banks in Hong Kong and Macau, and Hongkongers to buy products from mainland banks in the GBA.

The GBA, which is within an hour’s drive from Hong Kong, will help it become an important wealth management centre. Many wealthy individuals and family offices in the bay area will like to come to Hong Kong to invest in international products to manage their wealth, he said.

Hui said Hong Kong’s wealth management ambitions will not be affected by Beijing’s decision to move ahead with a national security law for the city. The law, announced on May 21, has increased tensions with the United States, which has threatened to put sanctions on the city, as well as key officials.

“I stand for what I represent and what I believe in, and I am ready” to face whatever consequences it entails, Hui said, adding that he was not worried about being sanctioned himself.

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He also played down fears that the new law would affect Hong Kong’s ability to attract funds and talent. “The security law is aimed at providing a stable business operating environment. The social unrest that started a year ago shows there is a need for a security law to bring stability, and to strengthen the confidence of the business sector,” Hui said.

Over the past two decades, people have said capital and talent will leave Hong Kong, because of the financial crises in 1998 and 2009, and because of the Severe acute respiratory syndrome outbreak in 2003, but “money still flows in and people decide to stay on, as Hong Kong is the best gateway to China and Asia, the fastest-growing markets worldwide”.

Hui also dismissed the notion that the new law will restrict the free flow of information. “There were rumours that the new law will ban the usage of WhatsApp or Facebook, which is simply not true,” he said.


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White House says Beijing’s proposed national security law for Hong Kong could lead to US sanctions

He said the tensions between the US and China would lead to more Chinese technology companies that are listed in America to list in Hong Kong. Such listings will diversify the Hong Kong market away from financial services and property, and the city will emerge as a hub where technology and biotechnology companies raise funds, he said.

The successor to Charles Li Xiaojia, who will step down as CEO of HKEX in October 2021, will need to ensure the bourse continues to be an international fundraising hub. “We need to make sure HKEX continues to have an international vision,” Hui said.