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Can Hong Kong bounce back as a global metropolis after pandemic barriers?

HONG KONG — Luxury store windows have been replaced by pop-up stores selling masks. Entire floors of skyscrapers are deserted. The streets that were once packed with locals and visitors vying for space are quiet.

This is “Asia’s World City,” Hong Kong’s self-proclaimed title, after more than two years under some of the world’s toughest pandemic rules. The city now wants to reclaim that cosmopolitan status by taking its biggest step yet to live with Covid-19: scrapping a crushing quarantine mandate that at one point required 21 days in a designated hotel and easing restrictions on global gatherings that gave it its reputation. as the international metropolis.

But uncertainty remains over the new approach, which still bans visitors from places considered high-risk such as restaurants, bars and gyms for their first three days in the city, with many industry leaders saying the changes are not enough. to pull Hong Kong out of an economic recession and restore its once clamorous social life.

There are also deeper concerns. The fact that Hong Kong began deviating from China’s “Covid Zero” policy only after Beijing gave its blessing has raised concerns about the city’s broader loss of autonomy. Before the pandemic, the former British colony was already irreversibly changing after months of pro-democracy protests across the city. Then Beijing unleashed a devastating crackdown that shut down or expelled some of the people and things that made Hong Kong unique from the rest of China: a politically boisterous, irreverent, semi-autonomous city.

“Hong Kong’s international credibility is in tatters,” said David Webb, a longtime corporate governance campaigner in Hong Kong. As the city struggled to control a Covid outbreak earlier this year, its leaders faltered. They lurched back and forth between insisting on increasingly restrictive policies that reflected China’s draconian approach and backing down, scaring residents and sparking an exodus, predominantly of foreigners.

“What happens the next time there is a health threat?” Mr. Webb asked. “They have done permanent damage to our reputation for having autonomy on matters like this.”

Under John Lee, a former police officer who became the city’s chief executive in July, Hong Kong has loosened restrictions faster than at any point in the pandemic. He has assured residents that the city will continue to move in that direction while emphasizing the need to protect people from future outbreaks as well.

Other politicians have adopted a similar tone.

“We haven’t lost the title, you could say it’s a bit tarnished,” said Tommy Cheung, a legislative councilor representing the restaurant industry and an adviser to Mr. Lee. “We have more people leaving than coming, but that happens all over the world. That doesn’t mean we’re not a global city anymore.”

Despite the positive turn, the damage in recent years has been devastating. After decades in Hong Kong, many multinational companies have they took out their headquarters and staff away, moving to less restrictive places like Singapore and Seoul. International masters, foreign athletes and many members of Hong Kong’s professional elite are gone. For many, the move is permanent, but for some, Covid was just the last worry.

“In a way, Hong Kong is just another big city in China now,” said Meredith Haskins, a former teacher at the Hong Kong International School who retired in June. Teachers have left amid ongoing school disruptions and fears about possible mass testing and family separations in the government lockdown. A lengthy 21-day mandatory hotel quarantine period for many arrivals and several rounds of social distancing measures have taken a toll on families.

But the city’s changing political atmosphere has also cast a shadow. Curriculum guidelines issued by the government last year emphasize loyalty to mainland China, its leaders and its coercive methods, and many worry it is only a matter of time before the new national security law negatively affects plans. study in international schools. Schools have struggled to fill positions.

Strict Covid rules have also made it difficult for foreign companies to persuade employees not to leave Hong Kong. Companies have complained that even with relaxed rules, there are still travel barriers for new hires from abroad and for those wanting to attend a conference.

If Hong Kong can once again be an attractive city for foreign companies, “it would mean a lot of effort to rebuild Hong Kong’s global image,” said Frederik Gollob, president of the European Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong.

Professionals in the financial industry are even more explicit. To regain its competitiveness, they say, Hong Kong has to catch up again with other international financial centers such as London, New York and Singapore.

“It is up to the government to steer the community away from fixating on Covid – a return to normality is key,” said Sally Wong, chief executive of the Hong Kong Mutual Funds Association, which represents large investment firms. global, including BlackRock. In a recent survey by the group, more than a third of investment firms said they had moved some or all of their regional and global executives out of Hong Kong.

The exodus has been detrimental to Hong Kong’s economy and workforce, which has shrunk to a decade low. The city’s financial secretary warned this month that Hong Kong is likely to end the year in recession.

Parts of pre-Covid Hong Kong will likely never return.

Media companies, including The New York Times, and non-governmental organizations began relocating staff to other Asian cities such as Seoul and Tokyo in 2020, due to the uncertainty that followed Beijing’s imposition of the sweeping new law. of national security.

Much of Hong Kong’s once-vibrant civil society is unlikely to return. Some industries that depend on the city’s open border are cautiously optimistic, but aren’t sure the easing of Covid restrictions will be enough.

An early test will be the Hong Kong Sevens rugby tournament, one of the city’s best-known sporting events, taking place in November for the first time since the start of the pandemic.

Pre-sale tickets are down 30 per cent from 2019 as international corporate sponsors express uncertainty about the event, said Robbie McRobbie, chief executive of the Hong Kong Rugby Union. Foreign spectators will not be able to attend until three days of health surveillance have passed.

“Whether or not we can put up the sold-out signs, I’m not sure at this point,” McRobbie said. There is also confusion over whether the 350 athletes, coaches, referees and medical support teams will have to remain in closed circuit for the first three days, restricted to their hotel and the stadium.

The main beneficiaries of the quarantine changes so far have been tour operators. “It’s a very positive direction,” said Moon Yau, deputy general manager of Sunflower Travel Services, which tours Japan, Europe and mainland China. Since Friday, when officials announced the rule change, she had received more than 300 daily travel inquiries, she said. He added that, so far, they had mostly been residents taking their first vacation abroad in nearly three years.

For others, the impact is more mixed. The first weekend after the announced changes, revenue fell at the nearly 40 Black Sheep Restaurants across the city, said Syed Asim Hussain, co-founder, as residents rushed out of the city on planned overseas trips since long ago. The new rules are not enough to bring people to Hong Kong, he said, and he plans to write a complaint to the government.

He said he also wonders if Hong Kong has changed irrevocably after months of protests, the silencing of dissent that followed, and more than two years of isolation.

“My industry demands that I be optimistic, but I haven’t found much reason for optimism in three years,” Hussain said. “It has been so difficult. Somehow, even though security is in sight, it’s more frustrating.”

“I definitely feel,” he added, “that we’ve been through something really heavy collectively, as a community.”

Zixu Wang contributed report.

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