But one city, arguably Asia’s biggest financial center, is absent from the list: Hong Kong.
“We have made it very clear that our focus will be opening the border with the mainland. Hong Kong people need to go to the mainland,” said the city’s leader, Carrie Lam, at a news conference on Tuesday. “Of course, international travel is important, international business is important to us — but by comparison, the mainland is more important.”
Lam’s comments illustrate just how closely Hong Kong’s government has tied its Covid strategy with China — not surprising for a Chinese territory, but a further sign of Hong Kong’s deteriorating reputation as an international hub.
China has maintained a strict zero-Covid approach, even as many other countries transition to living with the coronavirus. Hong Kong’s decision to follow suit means the diverse metropolis, once known for attracting international business and globetrotting expats, is instead retreating further into isolation.
The government has also struggled to increase vaccine uptake among older people, meaning “a huge proportion of our population will be exposed to the problems associated with Delta the moment we open up internationally,” Thomas said.
There’s the economic argument as well. At the news conference on Tuesday, Lam argued that many Hong Kong-based companies do business in the mainland, which made the border reopening critical to the economy.
“Arguably, opening to China will bring in far more economic value,” said Bernard Chan, convenor of the government advisory Executive Council. Before the pandemic, about 300,000 people were crossing the border every day — now it’s “a tiny figure,” meaning significantly less business for the retail and hospitality sectors.
But there are also political considerations. In the politically tumultuous two years following the 2019 Hong Kong protests, China has extended more and more of its reach into the city — and in return, Lam’s administration has stepped up its rhetoric emphasizing integration with the mainland.
The city government doesn’t want “to be seen as pursuing an opposing policy as the rest of China,” Thomas said. “China is basically going to pursue the zero-tolerance strategy for the foreseeable future, which means Hong Kong can either go in opposition (and open internationally) or align with China.”
In the face of intense criticism, the government has repeatedly defended its course of action. On Tuesday, Lam pointed to economic expansion in the first quarter to argue the city had not suffered badly from the tight restrictions.
And, Chan claimed, the majority of Hong Kongers are happy with things as they are.
“It’s just numbers,” he said. The people who want to open up international travel — expats, people with families abroad — “unfortunately, that’s a minority. Their priorities are different from those who are locally based.”
The broader general public is “so used to zero cases, they’re happy,” he added. “They’re willing to give up leisure travel for public health.”
The city is now effectively stuck in limbo, backed into a corner by its own policies with no easy path out. If Hong Kong reopens to international travel, it almost certainly will see a spike in infections — and lose all chance of reopening with China.
But if it continues on its current path, there’s no telling when China will feel confident enough to reopen the border, or what criteria Hong Kong needs to meet — leaving the city at the whim of the central government, simply waiting to be allowed in. And it means clinging onto the zero-Covid strategy, “which is looking increasingly untenable in a world where Covid has become basically endemic,” Thomas said.
“Hong Kong doesn’t have any real power to decide upon,” he added. “Neither option is ideal.”