Hong Kong is eager to show the world that the city is open for business after years of pandemic restrictions. Officials this week even found themselves willing to bend some rules for visitors — as long as they could afford it.
Bankers in town for the Global Financial Leaders’ Investment Summit were told they could skip mandatory quarantine and leave on a private jet if they tested positive for Covid. Tech executives attending Fintech Week from overseas were allowed to dine in private rooms, despite a rule prohibiting visitors from eating out during their first three days in the city. Spectators at the Hong Kong Sevens rugby tournament this weekend will be able to eat in the stands after rules were relaxed.
These three splashy events — the first in three years to involve international guests — were meant to show that Hong Kong was still worthy of its self-appointed title of “Asia’s World City.” But the privileges being doled out to the few have magnified the challenges the former British colony faces as it tries to balance increasing demands from Beijing, which has final say on Hong Kong’s Covid policies, with an international community that is determined to move past the pandemic.
“We were, we are and we will remain one of the world’s leading financial centers. And you can take that to the bank,” John Lee, Hong Kong’s leader, told executives, including those from Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley and JPMorgan, on Wednesday. (Mr. Lee, who usually wears a mask at news conferences, took his off for the speech.)
Hong Kong has struggled to break free from Beijing’s relentless “zero-Covid” policy and restore a global reputation bruised by a widespread crackdown on pro-democracy protests. U.S. lawmakers called on bankers to boycott the investment summit, saying attending would be a form of “whitewashing” of China’s authoritarian grip on the once semiautonomous territory.
For residents who have endured several difficult years of Covid rules, the loopholes and exceptions given to visiting executives sting. “If the rules are to be fair, it should be done across all levels of society, and if you think it’s hard to hold these summits, then just open up Hong Kong,” said Virginia Chan, the owner of Humid with a Chance of Fishballs Tours.
Like many other business owners in the city, Ms. Chan’s bottom line has been devastated by the stringent Covid restrictions. Her company used to run 60 group tours a month. Now, she’s grateful to have three so far this month.
Few people would dispute that the city needs an economic jolt. Citywide pro-democracy protests scared off tourists in 2019. Then Covid-19 restrictions barred nonresidents from the city for two years. Lengthy mandatory hotel quarantines triggered an exodus of professional workers, many of whom relocated to rival cities, such as Singapore.
With the economy heading for a recession, thousands of small businesses have shuttered, pushing many people out of a job.
Officials took a big step toward reopening in September when they jettisoned hotel quarantine requirements. But many say the new approach has made little difference because some restrictions remain in place. Travelers are barred from restaurants, bars and many other businesses for three days after arrival and must undergo health monitoring for a week.
“There are no tourists coming in,” said Eric Lee, the owner of a souvenir shop selling retro toy cars and snacks. Revenues at his nearly decade-old business, Hong Kong Tram Store, have fallen by as much as 70 percent in the past two years. “Will tourists have the patience to scan QR codes here and there?” he asked, referring to a cumbersome smartphone app required for visitors.
“You don’t have to do these things in other places,” he said. “And how about masks?”
Some of those small hassles were scrapped for financial executives to convince them to visit the city this week. Even the city’s financial secretary, Paul Chan, appeared to be given a pass when he returned to the city after testing positive for Covid while overseas. He also tested positive upon arrival, but was allowed to skip quarantine to attend events, where he abandoned his mask for important speeches.
Mr. Chan told reporters that health officials treated his case like any other. “There’s no particular privilege at all,” he said.
Despite the special dispensation given to V.I.P.s, many declined to visit Hong Kong. Officials said 12,000 people signed up for Fintech, a little more than half the 20,000 visitors that organizers expected.
Some of the biggest names on the guest list for the finance summit — including Citigroup’s Jane Fraser, Blackstone’s Jonathan Gray and Capital Group’s Timothy Armour — declined to attend. Five executives canceled at the last minute, with four of them citing Covid-19 or virus-like symptoms.
The bankers who did visit Hong Kong this week mostly limited their stay to just a few days, attending a private dinner at M+, a new contemporary art museum, and meeting with employees for the first time in more than two years.
Though U.S. lawmakers and advocacy groups had discouraged bankers from attending, officials in Beijing and Hong Kong showered the executives with praise.
“Your presence today puts a heady exclamation point to this welcome gathering,” Mr. Lee, Hong Kong’s leader, told bankers on Wednesday. China’s state controlled media trumpeted the summit as a sign of Hong Kong’s return as a global city.
One Chinese regulator, Fang Xinghai, urged visiting bankers not to read international media’s coverage of his country. During a panel discussion with the heads of Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley, the UBS chairman Colm Kelleher assured the audience that “we’re all very pro-China.”
Still, it was impossible to shield the executives from the ways in which Hong Kong is trying to adhere to some of Beijing’s Covid policies. Outside the ballroom at the Four Seasons Hotel where the finance summit was held, one sign prominently pointed to the “PCR test center,” a key requirement that even V.I.P.s were unable to get out of.
In their bid to get more visitors to come back, city officials also adjusted Covid rules for the Rugby Sevens tournament, Hong Kong’s top sports event.
Initially, officials said no food could be consumed in the stands, but then pivoted to say a small amount would be allowed, though masks were still required. Raphaël Seghin, who traveled to Hong Kong on Tuesday and hoped to attend the tournament, said he was confused about what rules still applied.
Mr. Seghin had already received two doses of a Covid vaccine when he booked his flight from Marseille, France, where he runs a soap factory. When he heard later that most locals needed three shots to enter restaurants and other venues, he rushed to get a booster before flying out, only to find out that it wouldn’t be valid until 14 days later. “I was stressed the whole ride,” he said.
Mr. Seghin, 37, grew up in Hong Kong and was returning to the city to renew his permanent residency.
“I live in a world now where Covid is not part of the preoccupations of most people on a daily basis,” Mr. Seghin said. “When you come here, it’s at the center of everything you do.”