Hong Kong is eager to show the world that the city is open for business after years of the pandemic limitations. Officials this week even found themselves willing to bend some rules for visitors — if they can afford it.
Bankers in the city for an investment summit of global financial leaders have been told they can skip mandatory quarantine and leave by private jet if they test positive for Covid. Tech executives attending Fintech Week from overseas were allowed to dine in private rooms, despite a rule banning visitors from eating out during their first three days in town. Spectators at this weekend’s Hong Kong Sevens rugby tournament will be able to eat in the stands after rules were relaxed.
The three lavish events – the first in three years to include international guests – were meant to show that Hong Kong is still worthy of its self-proclaimed title of “World City of Asia”. But the privileges granted to a few have exacerbated the challenges the former British colony faces as it tries to balance the growing demands of Beijing, which has the final say on Hong Kong’s Covid policy, with an international community determined to overcome the pandemic. .
“We were, are and will remain one of the world’s leading financial centers. And you can take it to the bank,” John Lee, the Hong Kong leader, told executives including those from Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley and JPMorgan on Wednesday. (Mr. Lee, who usually wears a mask at press conferences, took it off for the speech.)
Hong Kong has sought to break free from Beijing’s relentless “zero Covid” policy and restore a global reputation tarnished by widespread haul about pro-democracy protests. US lawmakers have called on bankers to boycott the investment summit, saying participation will be formal “whitening” from China authoritarian grip in a once semi-autonomous territory.
For residents who have endured a difficult few years of Covid rules, the loopholes and exemptions granted to visiting managers are stinging. “If the rules are to be fair, it should happen at all levels of society, and if you think it’s difficult to hold these summits, then just open up Hong Kong,” said Virginia Chan, owner of Humid with a Chance of Fishballs Tours.
Like many other business owners in the city, Ms Chan’s profits have been decimated by strict Covid restrictions. Her company organized 60 group tours a month. She is now grateful to have three so far this month.
Few would dispute that the city needs economic shock. City-wide pro-democracy protests scared the tourists in 2019. Then, Covid-19 restrictions banned non-residents from entering the city for two years. Long mandatory hotel quarantines prompted an exodus of professional workers, many of whom moved to competing cities such as Singapore.
With the economy headed for ca recessionthousands of small businesses went out of business, putting many people out of work.
Officials took a big step toward reopening in September when they dropped the hotel’s quarantine requirements. However, many say the new approach has made little difference as some restrictions remain in place. Travelers are barred from restaurants, bars and many other establishments three days after arrival and must undergo health checks for a week.
“No tourists come here,” said Eric Lee, owner of a gift shop selling vintage cars and snacks. Sales at his nearly ten-year-old Hong Kong Tram Store have fallen by as much as 70 percent over the past two years. “Will tourists have the patience to scan QR codes here and there?” he asked, referring to the cumbersome smartphone app visitors need.
“You don’t have to do these things in other places,” he said. “What about the masks?”
Some of these small difficulties have been removed for the financial managers to convince them to visit the city this week. Even the city’s financial secretary, Paul Chan, appeared to have been given a pass when he returned to the city after testing positive for Covid overseas. He too tested positive upon arrival, but was allowed to skip quarantine and attend events where he left the mask for important speeches.
Mr Chan told reporters that the medical staff treated his case like any other. “There is no special privilege at all,” he said.
Despite the special exemption granted to VIPs, many refused to visit Hong Kong. Officials said 12,000 people signed up for Fintech, slightly more than half of the 20,000 visitors organizers had expected.
Some of the biggest names on the financial summit’s guest list — including Citigroup’s Jane Fraser, Blackstone’s Jonathan Gray and Capital Group’s Timothy Armor — declined to attend. Five executives were canceled at the last minute, with four citing Covid-19 or virus-like symptoms.
Bankers who visited Hong Kong this week mostly limited their stays to a few days, attending a private dinner at M+, the new contemporary art museum, and meeting staff for the first time in more than two years.
Although U.S. lawmakers and advocacy groups discouraged bankers from participating, officials in Beijing and Hong Kong showered the executives with praise.
“Your presence today gives a heady exclamation point to this welcoming meeting,” Mr. Lee, the Hong Kong leader, told bankers on Wednesday. Chinese state-controlled media trumpeted the summit to mark the return of Hong Kong as a global city.
One Chinese regulator, Fang Xinghai, urged visiting bankers not to read international media about his country. During a panel discussion with the heads of Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley, UBS chairman Colm Kelleher assured the audience that “we are all very pro-China.”
Still, there was no way to shield executives from the ways in which Hong Kong is trying to comply with some of Beijing’s Covid policies. Outside the ballroom of the Four Seasons Hotel, where the financial summit was held, one sign prominently pointed to “PCR Testing Center,” a key requirement that even VIPs couldn’t escape.
In a bid to keep more visitors coming back, city officials have also adjusted Covid rules for the Rugby Sevens tournament, Hong Kong’s top sporting event.
Officials initially said no food could be consumed at the stalls, but then reversed themselves and said small amounts would be allowed, although masks were still required. Raphaël Seghin, who traveled to Hong Kong on Tuesday hoping to take part in the tournament, said he was confused about what rules were still in place.
Mr Seghin had already received two doses of the Covid vaccine when he booked the flight from Marseille, France, where he runs a soap factory. When he later heard that most locals needed three shots to enter restaurants and other establishments, he rushed to buy a booster before his flight, only to find out that it would only be valid for 14 days. “I was stressed the whole ride,” he said.
Mr Seghin, 37, grew up in Hong Kong and was returning to the city to resume his permanent residence.
“I live in a world where Covid is not part of most people’s daily concerns,” Mr Seghin said. “When you come here, it’s at the center of everything you do.