Hong Kong is 'pivotal gateway' between China and world, John Lee says

Hong Kong's economy is on track to contract for the third time in four years, as pandemic policies weigh on growth. PHOTO: REUTERS

HONG KONG (BLOOMBERG, AFP) - Hong Kong Chief Executive John Lee called the city a "pivotal gateway" between China and the world, as pressure mounts on the finance hub to reopen its borders.

"The central government fully supports Hong Kong in carrying out more extensive exchanges and close cooperation with the rest of the world," the city's leader said at the seventh Belt and Road Summit in Hong Kong on Wednesday (Aug 31).

Hong Kong's economy is on track to contract for the third time in four years, as pandemic policies weigh on growth. It is one of the last places in the world to impose hotel quarantine on vaccinated arrivals and an outdoor mask mandate.

Rival financial hub Singapore has scrapped Covid-19 border curbs, lifted its mask mandate in most places and announced visa plans to attract top talent in recent weeks, adding to the pressure.

Mr Lee is trying to balance reopening internationally with resuming travel ties to the mainland.

He was scheduled to visit neighbouring tech hub Shenzhen and provincial capital Guangzhou – his first official visit since taking office in July – where he was expected to discuss plans for reopening the border between Hong Kong and mainland China.

On Wednesday, however, Mr Lee cancelled a trip as the coronavirus situation worsened on both sides of the border.

He would instead meet top city and provincial officials online, calling it the “most convenient” option.

“We will discuss the cross-border arrangement for residents in Hong Kong and mainland China and I hope that, after thorough discussion, a consensus can be reached,” he said.

The cancelled trip illustrates how difficult it is for Hong Kong to balance the competing demands of reopening to the rest of the world while simultaneously reestablishing travel with closed-off China.

Mr Lee has promised to reopen travel with both the mainland and internationally, but with limited success so far.

Earlier this month, his administration reduced compulsory quarantine for international arrivals from seven days to three.

Businesses have urged him to scrap the requirement entirely, and no timetable has yet been given for when Hong Kong might truly reopen.

Meanwhile, local residents and businesses are desperate for the mainland border to reopen fully.

Hundreds of thousands of Hong Kongers need to travel regularly to the mainland for study, business and family reasons, according to Mr Lee and his top officials.

Hong Kong reported more than 8,800 infections and 13 deaths on Tuesday, with the authorities warning that social-distancing measures may be tightened if cases continued to rise.

Shenzhen on Tuesday ramped up its coronavirus curbs after officials detected the more transmissible Omicron subvariant BF.15 for the first time amid 35 new cases.

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