Hong Kong’s Covid-19 strategy must look beyond the focus on quarantine-free mainland travel


  • As an almost singular objective for our government, travel to the mainland has proven a dangerous distraction from important priorities such as getting the elderly vaccinated
  • Moreover, Hong Kong’s value to the country rests on its international gateway role for capital, goods and people, which also requires open borders with the wider world

The pandemic has not been kind to politicians. Countless numbers around the world have been unmasked by the crisis, their failings in leadership and crisis management on stark display. Political leaders have frequently demonstrated an inability to plan for even the most expected scenarios, and have often muddled science, common sense and politics with deadly results.

Our leaders in Hong Kong have been no exception. The brutal fifth wave casts a harsh light on past decisions.

The best leaders have shown flexibility, adjusting their approaches as circumstances have changed. Their societies are largely now landing on their feet.

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Hong Kong still has a long way to go. At the Post’s Redefining Hong Kong seminar on March 16, Financial Secretary Paul Chan Mo-po implied that our priorities have not really changed. Particularly disappointing was his reinforcement of the government’s long-held, and as yet wholly unsuccessful objective, of opening the border for quarantine-free travel with the mainland.

That this objective continues to figure prominently in government thinking does not bode well for Hong Kong’s timely emergence from the pandemic.

Were this simply one of a set of objectives leading to restoring normality and prosperity to Hong Kong, there would be little harm done. As an almost singular objective for our government, however, it has proven a dangerous distraction from important priorities.

Getting everyone vaccinated, particularly the elderly, has received insufficient attention. And since a quarantine-free border requires an alignment with China’s zero-Covid approach, our government has done little to plan for a future in which our internationally oriented city learns to live with the virus like the rest of the world.

Yet the government continues to position quarantine-free mainland travel as the shining star that will guide us to a better future.

Chan said he was hopeful that quarantine-free travel might happen in the “second half of the year”, but offered no plan on how this might be achieved. He as much as admitted that it was not really in the Hong Kong government’s control as it would depend “on the Covid situation on the mainland”.

To date, the government has utterly failed in persuading the mainland to open a quarantine-free border with Hong Kong.

In November 2020, Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor suggested that the border with the mainland might open when Hong Kong had zero infections. In July 2021, she announced she was awaiting “positive instructions” from Beijing on the matter. In November 2021, Chief Secretary John Lee Ka-chiu said Hong Kong had met the “basic requirements” for a full border reopening.

Never mind ‘fading tolerance’, what about the lack of trust, Mrs Lam?

Yet nothing has happened. The mainland has repeatedly shown that a quarantine-free border with Hong Kong is not a high priority. When will our leaders understand that the primacy of this objective is keeping them from taking a more balanced and pragmatic approach to ensuring Hong Kong’s future?

And how long before they notice that Hongkongers who have wanted to go to the mainland have been going anyway? They’ve served their time in quarantine and got on with their lives and businesses, under no illusion that quarantine on the mainland is within the Hong Kong government’s purview to fix.

Trucks heading for the border wait at Man Kam To Immigration Control Point in Sheung Shui on March 14. Photo: Sam Tsang

© Provided by South China Morning Post
Trucks heading for the border wait at Man Kam To Immigration Control Point in Sheung Shui on March 14. Photo: Sam Tsang

So why are our leaders seemingly obsessed with a quarantine-free mainland border? The politics of patriotism may be at play, with pragmatism and economics taking a back seat.

The financial secretary seemed to justify this priority when he said a broad resumption of cross-border travel would lead to a business and economic revival, as the “mainland is the biggest market for Hong Kong”.

Zero-Covid approach puts China at disadvantage to the West, economists warn

However, Hong Kong’s value to the mainland, and vice versa, does not simply rely on the free flow of people between the two jurisdictions. Hong Kong’s value to China is largely due to its international gateway role for capital, goods and people. This requires open borders not just with the mainland but with the wider world.

While a quarantine-free border with mainland China may look politically appealing, it is of little real value without a commensurate opening to the rest of the world.

As to any government plans on international reopening, Chan was vague, offering a promise of an investment summit more than six months from now, bizarrely timed to coincide with the Hong Kong Sevens. The lack of urgency is palpable, as is the frivolity of tying such an important issue to the timing of a sporting event.

Late last week, Chief Executive Carrie Lam acknowledged that she understood “some of our financial institutions are losing patience about the isolated status of Hong Kong”. Many residents hoped for a meaningful change in thinking or a new approach. Their optimism proved to be unfounded.

On Monday, Lam announced some rationalising of quarantine arrangements for travellers, but did not address any new approach or longer-term plan.

When asked whether there might be a possible decoupling from the mainland’s Covid-19 approach, Lam advised that people need not draw any such conclusions. She suggested the government needed more monitoring, and more consultation, before any road map was developed.

Our leaders seem to be sticking to a vague old plan that has so far failed. It’s time for them to become less rigid, to reconsider, adjust and come up with a more realistic plan for Hong Kong’s future.

Robin Hibberd is a financial services executive and long-time resident of Hong Kong. He is a former president of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong

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This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (www.scmp.com), the leading news media reporting on China and Asia.

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