Will Hong Kong reopen for business under new leader Lee?

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Hong Kong (AFP) – Hong Kong’s next leader John Lee inherits a once-vibrant Asian business hub mired in its third year of pandemic isolation, but he could prioritize safety over an economic restart, according to the business leaders and observers.

Lee, a former security chief, is set to be confirmed as Hong Kong’s chief executive next Sunday by a committee of 1,463 elites after running unchallenged with Beijing’s blessing.

He promised a “results-oriented” government and a new chapter for the southern Chinese city, though his manifesto announced few major policy changes.

Business leaders have expressed concern over a lack of details from Lee on how he could revive the city’s fortunes, including going beyond Chinese-style travel restrictions that have cut off the city and sparked a talent drain.

“In order to revive Hong Kong’s reputation as a business hub, we need a Covid exit plan,” Kristian Odebjer, president of the Swedish Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong, told AFP.

Tara Joseph, the city’s former director of the American Chamber of Commerce, said travel connectivity was a key first step for Hong Kong to regain its international stature after “so much damage to its reputation”.

But Lee appeared to brush off those concerns last week, saying he would instead prioritize reopening the border with mainland China – signaling that an immediate policy reversal is unlikely.

‘Stuck in the middle’

Lawmaker and businessman Michael Tien said the coronavirus has trapped Hong Kong’s leader between a rock and a hard place, no matter who occupies that seat.

“Our country is heading towards zero-Covid while the rest of the world is living with the virus,” Tien told AFP.

Hong Kong leadership bid AFP

“Hong Kong is stuck in the middle.”

The city was hit by an outbreak fueled by Omicron that killed more than 9,000 people and contributed to a 4% decline in economic output in the first quarter.

Siddharth Sridhar, a microbiologist at the University of Hong Kong, said Hong Kong has a “grace period between waves” and Lee should not waste time getting the elderly vaccinated.

In recent weeks, outgoing leader Carrie Lam has eased some pandemic restrictions, including reducing quarantine to seven days and allowing non-residents entry for the first time in about two years.

Last week, Lee told reporters he would continue “a good balance” between fighting the virus and keeping the economy afloat.

Its 44-page manifesto did not specifically address the coronavirus, aside from a vow to learn lessons from the pandemic and put in place a new emergency procedure to deal with future threats.

Security context

Lee spent around four decades in Hong Kong’s security service, prompting questions about his business acumen in a city that bills itself as the financial gateway between China and the world.

“The choice of John Lee illustrates Beijing’s priorities for security and control in Hong Kong,” said former US chamber chief Joseph.

“He will be Hong Kong’s first leader with no business experience.”

Business leaders have expressed concern over a lack of details from Lee on how he could revive the city's fortunes, including going beyond Chinese-style travel restrictions that have cut off the city and sparked a talent drain.
Business leaders have expressed concern over a lack of details from Lee on how he could revive the city’s fortunes, including going beyond Chinese-style travel restrictions that have cut off the city and sparked a talent drain. Bertha WANG AFP/File

Lawmaker Tien said Lee would be receptive to outside opinions – a compliment echoed by many Lee supporters.

“Lee won’t listen when it comes to safety, but in other areas he has no choice, he has to listen and consider opinions,” Tien said.

Discussing his own style of governance, Lee said he was a pragmatist eager to streamline procedures for greater efficiency.

Pro-Beijing business tycoon Allan Zeman, who praised Lee’s political ideas, said “(Lee) came from the police and the police were used to making things happen.”

Democrats excluded

Lee was among 11 senior Hong Kong and Beijing officials sanctioned by the US Treasury in 2020 following China’s imposition of a sweeping security law aimed at stifling dissent.

Last month, YouTube suspended Lee’s campaign channel citing the need to comply with sanctions.

Lee has defended his role in crushing the 2019 democratic protests and recently said his government would prioritize livelihoods issues over democratization.

He presented himself as a thoughtful leader who can get things done and cut red tape.

Baptist University political scientist Kenneth Chan warned the style could lead to even less public opinion and participation in how the city is governed.

Lee has also shown little appetite so far for crossing political lines to heal social divisions.

“He is determined…to shut out the Democrats, put pressure on civil society and basically kill the whole issue of democratic reform in the next five years,” Chan said.

“It’s going to be a very tightly closed door.”

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