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Analysis: Hong Kong chose China over the rest of the world. Now it’s stuck in Covid limbo

But one city, arguably Asia’s biggest financial center, is absent from the list: Hong Kong.

Hong Kong closed its borders in early 2020 at the start of the pandemic, and hasn’t opened them since. Except for a few exceptions, the semi-autonomous Chinese territory remains largely closed to non-residents and foreign visitors, and has some of the harshest quarantine rules in the world.
The long closure has impacted businesses and frustrated residents. Yet, the government has stood firm — repeatedly emphasizing that its priority is reopening its border with mainland China, not with the rest of the world.

“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.

There are a few reasons why Hong Kong has made this decision, said Nicholas Thomas, an associate professor at the Department of Asian and International Studies at the City University of Hong Kong. Though about 63% of the population has been fully vaccinated, many received the Chinese Sinovac vaccine, which has had its efficacy against the highly infectious Delta variant questioned.

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.”

But this approach has sowed growing discontent among the public, particularly foreign nationals, who make up nearly 10% of the city’s 7.5 million population.
“For a lot of people, this is starting to go on two years missing grandparents, births, deaths, birthdays, anniversaries, etc,” one senior banker in Hong Kong told Reuters.
The American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong told CNN in September that “an unprecedented number” of expatriates have either left or are planning to leave. Headhunters are struggling to attract new talent to Hong Kong, with people looking instead to places with more relaxed rules.
Travelers at Shenzhen Bay Immigration Control Point in Hong Kong on September 15.

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.”

But pandemic fatigue has long set in, and there’s no telling when the government’s bet on China will pay off. On Sunday, a member of the Executive Council told local media the city might not be able to open its China border until February. Chan refuted that estimate, but didn’t provide much hope for an earlier opening either. “It’s a moving target,” he said. “There’s no plan of a specific date or anything at all.”
Last month, the border cracked open somewhat — but only one way, allowing some Chinese residents to enter Hong Kong without quarantine, not vice versa.

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.”

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