Chief Executive John Lee attends a press conference at government headquarters in Tamar on September 23. Photo: Yik Yeung-man
Alice Wu
Alice Wu

To get Hong Kong back on its feet, we need to be three steps ahead

  • With Beijing’s blessing, John Lee’s administration has started the process of reconnecting with the world, but scrapping hotel quarantine is just a start
  • As Singapore overtakes us as an international finance centre, and with a massive deficit looming and tourism facing headwinds, Hong Kong needs a clear plan to jump-start its economy
The World Dragon Boat Racing Championships have sailed on after the international federation moved its 2023 race from Hong Kong to the more welcoming shores of Thailand. Hong Kong has been cancelled, again.
The government had barely rescued the 25th Hong Kong marathon, which organisers had said they were cancelling but is now rescheduled for February. Chief Executive John Lee Ka-chiu came out to say his government would do its best to support the event and others like it, because it was in everyone’s interests for “ these things to happen”.

Indeed, a lot of things need to happen. But before we get to that, let’s be clear on what has already happened.

After months of warnings about Hong Kong losing out to Singapore as an international finance centre and amid repeated government denials – and assertions of confidence in the city – it has happened: Singapore has overtaken Hong Kong in the latest Global Financial Centres Index, a semi-annual survey by the China Development Institute and the London think tank Z/Yen Partners.

As for why, the report’s authors stated the obvious: “Continuing travel restrictions in places like Hong Kong and Tokyo affect their ability to conduct normal levels of business.”

None of this should come as a surprise, since former chief executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, weeks before the end of her term, was very clear on where the city was heading should quarantine controls remain. Lam, too, pointed to the obvious: “If you cannot travel freely to other places and into the mainland, how could you be a hub?”


Hong Kong ends mandatory hotel quarantine for arrivals under ’0+3' plan

Hong Kong ends mandatory hotel quarantine for arrivals under ’0+3' plan

Even our leading health experts and government advisers have gone from being proponents of strict controls to urging the administration to start the process of relaxing restrictions to let Hong Kong return to normality.

In January 2020, at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, the University of Hong Kong’s chair of infectious diseases Yuen Kwok-yung staunchly supported the stringent measures. Noting that others thought Hong Kong was overdoing it, he defended the city’s actions and inconvenience it caused to residents and travellers as necessary, to be “walking at least three steps ahead of the epidemic”.

Last week, Yuen, in an article penned with HKU colleagues, said Covid-19 had become endemic, and that it was time for the authorities to start relaxing restrictions to allow life to return to normal. This came after health advisers were told to keep quiet unless they were speaking in support of government measures.


Beijing gives its blessing to Hong Kong to reopen its borders to the world

Beijing gives its blessing to Hong Kong to reopen its borders to the world

We have our health advisers, business leaders and former chief executive to thank, as we can now finally talk about returning to normality. We also have Singapore to thank for putting us on notice. And every major event that has been cancelled has played an important part in Hong Kong finally being given the green light to make up for lost time.

Lee has received Beijing’s open support, via the State Council’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, to create “ maximum room” for Hong Kong to set our own course to reconnect with the world.
As significant as the scrapping of hotel quarantine is, it is only the first of many steps. Financial Secretary Paul Chan Mo-po has been sounding the alarm for tough days ahead. We’ve had negative economic growth and the government is projecting a budget deficit twice the amount that was initially forecast, as revenue is expected to fall short.

How Hong Kong can roll back Covid-19 rules to save the economy

The tourism sector in Asia is expected to struggle until at least 2024. Without momentum to drive our rebound, we face headwinds that need more than just the lifting of quarantine measures.

The Lee administration’s true test comes after the lifting of the hotel quarantine. The government must make clear its plans and blueprint for reopening and jump-starting our economy, which has been forced to idle for too long.

To borrow the words of our top microbiologist Yuen, the Lee administration must show not just Hong Kong, or Beijing, but the world that it is three steps ahead in getting Hong Kong back up and running again.

Alice Wu is a political consultant and a former associate director of the Asia Pacific Media Network at UCLA