Hong Kong must prioritise economic recovery following border reopening

While the border closure put travel opportunities on hold, it also stalled plans for Hong Kong to build closer links with the Greater Bay Area. The challenge now is to strike a workable balance between prosperity and pandemic prevention.

After nearly three years, the border between mainland China and Hong Kong has been reopened, following an announcement by the Hong Kong government. As of January 8, a daily quota of 50,000 Hongkongers are able to head to the mainland quarantine-free via one of the three designated checkpoints, through which a daily quota of 60,000 mainlanders can also enter Hong Kong.

Residents from both sides of the border have to apply in advance through an online system to obtain a slot, although those returning home or studying either in Hong Kong or mainland China are not subject to the quota. Travellers must also present a negative PCR test result taken within 48 hours before departure.

Hong Kong Chief Executive John Lee Ka-chiu said on the second day of the border reopening that Hong Kong would strive for the resumption of normal border crossings, something I believe we all hope is achieved sooner rather than later, with the Lunar New Year just around the corner.

Upon reflection, there were always compelling reasons for resuming Hong Kong-mainland border crossings – albeit in a gradual and orderly manner – from study and work opportunities to travel and family reunions.

Mainland China had already begun loosening its numerous Covid-19 restrictions across the country in December. Mainland travellers can now travel freely to other parts of the world, a dramatic step taken by Beijing after years of self-imposed isolation to curb the spread of the coronavirus. Hong Kong has quickly followed suit, abandoning testing and virus tracing app requirements for inbound travellers.

With mainland China and Hong Kong reconnecting with the world, Hong Kong’s economy looks likely to rebound this year, reversing the sluggish trend recorded over the past few years, as the city gears up to re-establish itself as a global financial hub – a role that the central government endorsed in its 14th five-year plan.

Although the Hong Kong-mainland border reopening has been welcomed by businesses and members of the public alike, challenges and uncertainty remain. Moreover, we must fully understand the significance of the reopening, to be better prepared for the even greater challenges that lie ahead.

While necessary to curb the spread of Covid-19, the severe social-distancing measures and quarantine requirements for travellers adopted by the previous administration have taken a heavy toll on Hong Kong’s economy. The past two-plus years have demonstrated that it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to balance pandemic prevention with economic growth. Going forward, some adjustments in policies and attitudes to maintaining economic growth amid virus outbreaks will be necessary.

Economic recovery is fundamental for Hong Kong, which was ravaged by violent protests three years ago, only to be isolated from the rest of the world by successive waves of Covid-19. Hong Kong was only able to return to peace and order with the support of the central government and we now need to work to maintain that stability, and a sound economy is key to ensuring that.

Without growth, Hong Kong will face tremendous hurdles in advancing from stability to prosperity. In short, the border reopening is vital for a city standing at a crossroads between short-term uncertainty and long-term prosperity.

Furthermore, Hong Kong and Macau’s integration into the Greater Bay Area is part of the Outline Development Plan promulgated by the central government in 2019.

In his report to the 20th party congress last October, President Xi Jinping vowed to continue to develop the Greater Bay Area and support Hong Kong and Macau to better integrate into China’s overall national development, with the Greater Bay Area serving as a key entry point. Keeping the Hong Kong-mainland border closed for any longer would have disrupted this all-important process.

As with any country in the early stages of lifting its pandemic restrictions, China is currently experiencing a surge in Covid-19 cases. It will be prudent to monitor the situation closely and maintain some preventive measures, especially in light of the contagious new Omicron subvariant XBB. It has been reported that Hong Kong has already recorded a number of both local and imported cases of XBB.

Given the current situation, caution is still needed as we embrace the reopening. The Hong Kong government’s decision to keep the mask mandate in place for now was the right move. It is still too early for every pandemic prevention measure to be withdrawn. I trust that the authorities will take all the measures necessary to sustain the momentum of Hong Kong’s economic recovery.

Moving forward, the challenge will continue to be in striking a workable balance between economic prosperity and pandemic prevention. However, we can at least now be assured of brighter days in the year ahead.