Reopening to the world in Covid-19 pandemic can wait, but Hong Kongers want borders with China to open

Companies are under rising pressure due to Covid-19 travel restrictions and have become restless in Hong Kong.
Companies are under rising pressure due to Covid-19 travel restrictions and have become restless in Hong Kong.PHOTO: AFP

HONG KONG - While it is of lesser importance that Hong Kong reopens to the rest of the world, being able to travel without quarantine between the city and the mainland is a priority for writer Sandra Han.

The 27-year-old, who works in Hong Kong, has not returned home to Jiangsu for more than 1½ years since the end of January last year.

"I hope we can clear Customs with the mainland as soon as possible because objectively speaking, the overall risk of the epidemic in the mainland is low, so reopening borders with Hong Kong will not bring additional risks to the territory," said Ms Han.

"Already, I missed the wedding of my best friend and another of my cousin whom I grew up with," said Ms Han, who added that her parents and grandparents are getting on in years and she wants to visit them as soon as she can.

Whether Hong Kong should open up to the rest of the world for business and travel depends on whether the risks are high, noted Ms Han.

"The epidemic is still serious in the United States and European countries, so the Hong Kong government must first ensure that the reopening of borders will not bring additional risks to the city," she said.

Hong Konger Eva Choi, 35, is not too concerned with borders staying shut.

"Travel is leisure and not a must. I don't want to take risks just because I want to play. Even if the Hong Kong government scraps the 21-day quarantine, I will stay tuned first and see how things go."

Ask Singaporean businessman Gary Lim, 47, who has lived in Hong Kong for almost two decades and he will tell you that the locals are not too bothered by the closures.

"It depends on which industry you're in. If you're not in finance, it doesn't make much of a difference. Local businesses like retail are more concerned about borders with the mainland reopening so tourists can come over," he said.

These are popular views in Hong Kong, where low or no cases are appreciated, although comparisons have been rife of late between the city's zero-Covid-19 approach and strategies of countries like Singapore that treat the virus as endemic.

Businesses and expatriates in Hong Kong have lobbied for months for on-arrival rules to be eased, particularly the mandatory quarantine in a designated hotel for up to 21 days.

Not only have the European Chamber of Commerce and the American Chamber of Commerce (AmCham) come under the spotlight in recent days for criticising the tight border controls, which allow only select non-residents to enter Hong Kong, but local business leaders have also weighed in on calling for the resumption of travel between Hong Kong and the mainland.

A main gripe, besides not being able to travel freely for work, is that expats cannot fly home to see their family and friends - something they can still do with relative ease in places such as the US and European countries.

Companies also face the problem of expats unwilling to relocate to Hong Kong because of the strict quarantine rules.

Ms Choi, despite working in the banking industry, does not think Hong Kong's status as an international financial centre will be deeply affected by the shutting of its borders.

Most banks in the city already have plans to cut business travel in the future and to replace these with online conferences as the pressure to cut costs grows, she pointed out.

For Ms Han, closed borders are not unique to Hong Kong, so she believes it is not a factor that will dent Hong Kong's reputation as a global financial hub.

In an opinion piece published by The Standard on Tuesday (Oct 12), writer Mary Ma made the point that was previously raised by Chief Executive Carrie Lam - that foreign companies come to Hong Kong to access the mainland.

"Without an open border with the mainland, would they have come to Hong Kong?" the writer wondered.

She noted that companies are under rising pressure due to Covid-19 travel restrictions and have become restless in Hong Kong, but they will have to "bear with the situation for a while".

And this situation is something that not just expats have to endure, but also everyone who lives and works in Hong Kong.


Most banks in the city already have plans to cut business travel in the future and to replace these with online conferences. PHOTO: REUTERS

"The pleas of both AmCham and the European Chamber of Commerce indirectly confirm these companies cannot go elsewhere if they want to do business with China - otherwise, they might have already left," wrote Ms Ma.

Indeed, government data released on Oct 7 showed that the number of overseas and mainland companies in Hong Kong rose 10 per cent from over 8,200 in 2017 to about 9,000 in 2021.

In terms of source country, the mainland tops with 2,080 companies, followed by Japan at roughly 1,388, the US at 1,267, Britain at 667 and Singapore at 449.

Now that Hong Kong is more closely integrated with the mainland through plans like the Qianhai Shenzhen-Hong Kong Cooperation Zone and Greater Bay Area, there is only more impetus to follow Beijing's lead in the Covid-19 strategy.

The view that Hong Kong will now just follow the directives of the mainland is common in the city, where at least 1.5 million people have moved from the mainland to Hong Kong since the territory returned to Chinese rule in 1997.

But ask people who have had to go through 21 days of quarantine in a hotel room, deal with last-minute extensions of quarantine hotel bookings and frantic changing of air tickets as Hong Kong officials flip-flop on rules, the sentiment is quite the opposite.

Formed in March 2020, the HK Quarantine support group on Facebook has been a gold mine for residents who travel overseas during the pandemic and must navigate the city's list of ever-changing rules when they return.

Besides memes and jokes about their experiences, there are also many outbursts and frustrated posts demanding answers from the authorities, who monitor the 55,000-strong group.

One post in particular garnered 1,200 reactions and nearly 500 comments as at Wednesday night, as it talked about the helplessness of being stuck in Hong Kong.

The Hong Kong-born writer who has lived in the city for 36 years said he finally decided to call it quits and leave for London for good. "The thing is, if there was any semblance of hope - on X date we will open up - then the atmosphere here would be buzzing. But the feeling is there is no hope or end in sight."

In a Bloomberg Television interview on Monday, Mrs Lam, who follows China's Covid-19 zero approach that tolerates no local infections, said even a single death would be a "major concern".

On Tuesday, Mrs Lam said she hoped experts from Hong Kong and the mainland will meet again soon to iron out details on resuming cross-border travel, but no timeline was given.

In a clear sign that borders will stay shut, the leader said Hong Kong has "to remain status quo for a while".

This is in part due to the vaccination rate in the city. After all, only 64 per cent of the eligible population, or those aged 12 and above, have had two doses of a vaccine so far. About 68 per cent have had one shot.


Only 64 per cent of the eligible population, or those aged 12 and above, have had two doses of a vaccine so far. PHOTO: AFP

As Dr Leung Chi Chiu of the Hong Kong Medical Association puts it, Hong Kong is simply not in a position to reopen borders for now, given the low vaccination rate among the elderly.

Only a mere 15 per cent of those aged 80 and above have taken their first dose of a vaccine. In the 70 to 79 age group, it is 41 per cent and it is 60 per cent for those aged 60 to 69.

Dr Leung is of the view that until more than 90 per cent of seniors and the vulnerable are inoculated, there must be control on travel from high-risk areas to prevent the spread of the virus to the community.

Given the lay of the land, the views of some vocal critics of Hong Kong's border policy may have fallen on deaf ears.

But that is only because they are not the most important parts of the equation.