Chief Executive John Lee and his top ministers meet lawmakers for the first time at the Legislative Council on July 13. Photo: Yik Yeung-man
John Hanzhang Ye
John Hanzhang Ye

John Lee wants to tell Hong Kong’s story to the world, but actions would speak louder than words

  • Instead of trying to convince foreign governments that ‘one country, two systems’ is alive and well, Hong Kong can prove it by reviving global business ties
  • Winning back businesses and talent will take more than empty assurances, though; further concrete steps towards reopening are needed
Chief Executive John Lee Ka-chiu has said the Hong Kong government will strive to “tell the world the good stories of Hong Kong”, echoing President Xi Jinping’s mantra of “telling China’s story well”.
Yet, after two years of political disturbances and nearly three years of tough Covid-19 policies, with Hong Kong appearing frequently in global news headlines, the Western world doubts its ability to maintain its semi-autonomous status. Some countries no longer see the city as a distinct member of the international community but just another region of China.

Thus, when the government vows to tell our city’s good stories, it is critical to establish what kind of city it wants the world to see. While standing its ground against the West on political issues, the government should also seek to reassure international businesses that Hong Kong remains a familiar environment.

Hong Kong’s political changes are one of two major factors affecting the city’s global image. Understandably, the city is going through a period of adjustment following the disturbances of 2019 and 2020. The government is focusing its efforts on ensuring residents develop a greater sense of belonging within China.
Chinese and Hong Kong flags are hung to mark the 25th anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to Chinese rule on July 1. Photo: Reuters
The Western world sees things differently. After the passing of the national security law, the West has kept a close eye on political developments in Hong Kong. Governments of major developed countries have issued statements on the situation and commented on the recent criminal trials of political figures.
The Hong Kong government has responded with staunch defences of its political system. But, with the new legislation introduced by Beijing, the difference between how Hong Kong perceives itself and how it is perceived in the West is unlikely to alter.
Still, the government can send a message to global business leaders that the city’s business environment remains the same. The government has reaffirmed on several occasions the continued success of “one country, two systems” – but actions always speak louder than words.

The city’s Covid-19 policy is the other factor damaging its international reputation. While most developed economies have reopened their borders and lifted major pandemic restrictions, Hong Kong has for many months insisted on maintaining strict border controls.

The good news is that Hong Kong is making strides towards reopening, with no sign of a return to tough measures despite a rise in cases. Hong Kong airport is also preparing for an increase in passenger numbers.


Hong Kong cuts Covid-19 hotel quarantine for overseas travellers to 3 days plus 4 days at home

Hong Kong cuts Covid-19 hotel quarantine for overseas travellers to 3 days plus 4 days at home
Not everyone is convinced, however. Recently, the government has considered special arrangements for businesspeople to travel to Hong Kong without quarantine to attend an international finance conference in November. The business community is not buying it. It is not hard to understand their concern.

Top executives know they are not the only ones who desire quarantine-free travel, and moreover, that reviving Hong Kong’s business sector will take more than one conference.

A special one-off arrangement will not encourage business leaders to return to the city more frequently; indeed, it could drive them away as there will be no incentive once the summit is over. What is needed is a long-term policy on managing Covid-19. Unfortunately, the government is still caught between a full reopening and a zero-Covid approach.

Officials need to realise how important Hong Kong’s uniqueness is to the international community. It is not merely a city located in southern China, but a Chinese city which, after 156 years of British governance, also has a foot in the Western world. The international business community chooses Hong Kong for its familiar business environment, as well as its strategic location.

How does all this relate to telling good stories? Well, telling good stories should mean attracting people and business from around the world to work, live and invest in the city. Merely repeating statements will not bring back the international community.

The government needs to make clear what kind of Hong Kong it wants to build and what kind of business environment it wants to offer the world. Will it choose to be another Chinese city, will some Western elements be retained, or will it shift its sights to other countries? The international community is awaiting a decision. The government needs to move fast, before global players choose another city to call home.

John Hanzhang Ye is a PhD student in science and technology history at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities and also holds an MPhil degree in sociology from the Chinese University of Hong Kong