Decisive moves needed to reboost Hong Kong’s competitiveness

Hong Kong scrapped the mandatory hotel quarantine requirements for all coming to town last week. The decisive move marks a game changer for one of the world’s toughest anti-COVID regimes after more than two and a half years.

Making such a choice is not easy, as Hong Kong, an aging and densely populated city, is still wading through a delicate pandemic situation. Public hospitals are overstretching themselves under ever-increasing demands; while coronavirus phobia lingers in the city. But a policy must balance the risks and the interests of the society. Long-lasting quarantine requirements have hindered economic activities and choked people’s mobility, weighing heavily on the local economy. The strict measures have put Hong Kong’s core competitiveness at risk. When the whole world is reopening and easing border controls, Hong Kong, a global meeting point, simply cannot afford to sit back and wait with arms folded.

In September, a key global index showed Singapore overtaking Hong Kong to rise to third place in the ranking of leading international financial centers, shaking the long-existing “Nylonkong” ecosystem in the finance world.

Though only budding, the sign of losing Hong Kong’s competitive advantage to Singapore is alarming. If that becomes reality, it will not only weaken the city’s position but also hurt national interests.

The semi-annual “Global Financial Centres Index” report, produced by the China Development Institute in Shenzhen and London think tank Z/Yen Partners, in a straightforward manner, pointed out that the city’s stringent quarantine regime is the most important factor behind the drop. “Continuing travel restrictions in places like Hong Kong and Tokyo affect their ability to conduct normal levels of business,” according to the report.

According to airline analyzer Sobie Aviation, Singapore Changi Airport welcomed 7.3 million passengers in the second quarter, while Hong Kong handled only 1.2 million passengers in the first seven months of the year. Our tourist arrivals were merely 120,000 in that period. The fact is dazzling: Hong Kong calls for an immediate change.

This is not the only wake-up call for us. In recent weeks, several major sports events have been canceled or moved elsewhere because of the strict pandemic measures. The organizers have accused the special administrative region authorities of failing to make timely decisions to give way for proper preparations.

And according to industry sources, Singapore is going to host scores of Asia, world-level conventions and exhibitions from September to December, while Hong Kong is only counting on the Global Financial Leaders Forum, to be held on Nov 1-2. Those events are a big source for companies to get new orders and expand the city’s economy under this ongoing downturn. Meanwhile, local human resources experts have also warned the financial or high technology sectors of an ongoing brain drain.

It is not that other places have done things great, but we failed to catch up with the world’s pace.

What makes Hong Kong Hong Kong? The international financial center status, the global hub reputation, the efficient traveling process, the simple border policies. With all the strength, we are Asia’s World City and the connector of all “East-meeting-West” cooperation. But our erstwhile strict quarantine regime curbed these edges.

However, that does not mean Hong Kong has no chance. With the influx of high-net-worth individuals, Singapore is discussing a wealth tax and measures to contain rising property and leasing prices. And we also have that most distinctive advantage — as part of the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area development zone, the city has the whole of the Chinese mainland behind it. Moreover, Europe is shadowed with a war, and the United States is hitting the most thorny economic issues in a decade.

Hong Kong is in a better position to reattract talents. The SAR government should roll out all feasible measures to seize every chance, and the first step is to dismantle the quarantine restrictions on cross-border travelers.

The long-awaited “0+3” health surveillance regime will, in the first place, allow tighter work schedules and bring families closer, encouraging business travelers to come and expatriates to stay. They are cornerstones of Hong Kong’s global roles.

It’s always better late than never. In this ever-changing world, Hong Kong must reboost its competitiveness. The SAR government has rightly made the first step to reclaim the city’s global standing; and, in an orderly and controllable manner, more open measures will follow for a full resumption of connectivity, according to Chief Executive John Lee Ka-chiu in the announcement. With the stabilizing pandemic situation, we have every reason to anticipate that soon.

Understandably, there are people who feel regret and are puzzled as to why the city cannot fully “reconnect” with the Chinese mainland yet. We must admit that the anti-pandemic regime on the mainland is much more complex with more diversified medical resources conditions nationwide. We still have to wait, though this side of connectivity is vital. But we have to do what is needed to maintain the city’s competitiveness. The city has to make its decision. And the SAR government has made it.

The government has also done its part to allow quarantine-free trips for all from the mainland. That means the city is ready to resume normal travel procedures with the north, and is waiting for that to happen any time.

Encouragingly, the city did not sit still and wait for its fate. It is well-anticipated that new measures will reboost Hong Kong’s competitiveness and, most importantly, strengthen its financial-center status, which the country also attaches great importance to.

The author is a member of the Guangdong Province Zhongshan City Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference and vice-chairman of the Hong Kong Y Elites Association.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.