Open Arms

Hong Kong has a problem at the moment attracting Westerners to our city, whether as tourists, professionals, business executives, entrepreneurs or just young people getting to see the world.

This is an important issue: after all we style ourselves as Asia’s World City, a cosmopolitan society where east meets west. At the moment some of the flavour is missing: more like east meets other bits of east. This can be interesting but doesn’t really distinguish us from other cities in the region (Tokyo, Seoul, Bangkok, Singapore come to mind) or even within China: Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou also have sizeable expat communities.

The situation is most starkly illustrated by the response to the government’s various schemes to attract talent. Mainlanders account for more than 90 per cent of the successful applicants after taking into account those coming direct and those already settled in another location. As regards quality and skills level, this is not a problem as the criteria ensure we are getting some of the best, but the composition is skewed. Similarly with tourism: while the total numbers are starting to recover, growth has been strongest in the mainland market while long haul has been slow to grow back, partly because of lack of flights.

So what are the causes and what can be done to address the situation. Alas they are many and varied and not all can be tackled head-on. One major factor was our perceived draconian response to Covid with punishing quarantine arrangements, inflexible rules (mothers separated from infant babies, grieving families unable to visit dying relatives etc), and slow winding down (mask mandate dropped only in March). These drove many expat families to quit Hong Kong either to return to their home countries or retreat to elsewhere in the region, principally Singapore. Memories linger.

Another was the aftermath of the social disturbances in the second half of 2019. The overwhelming majority of protestors were initially peaceful, and their proclaimed causes (greater democracy etc) were bound to be favourably received in the international media. But then the protests were hijacked by a hard-core group of black-shirted militants prepared to indulge in violence and vandalism. At this point several things went wrong simultaneously: ordinary protestors were slow to withdraw support from their more violent brethren, some even joined the misguided efforts; the government continued to paint all protestors with the same brush; the international media proved incapable of recognising the nuances of the situation, prepared to overlook vicious attacks on policemen or bystanders, and damage to public property because “it was all in a good cause”. The result has been a public relations fiasco: the fact is we have a very negative image in overseas markets.

Underlying all these developments has been the action of some western governments, principally the USA and the UK, to undermine and restrain China at every opportunity. The Hong Kong SAR is a useful stick with which to beat the whole nation. The many unilateral moves by Washington on the economic and trade fronts have been well publicised. More subtle have been other moves. For example, the State Departments’s official website has advice to American travelers in four tiers ranging from “Do not travel” to “Exercise normal precautions”. China mainland is in category 3 “Exercise increased caution” while Hong Kong is in category 2 “Reconsider travel” giving as reason “due to the arbitrary enforcement of local laws.” All of us who live here know that this is a lie, but such statements do carry weight with Americans and other potential western visitors.

In similar vein comes the UK’s BN(O) “rescue mission”, to save the oppressed local citizenry with every form of assistance short of the one thing – an immediate British passport – which would actually help. Is there no limit to this hypocrisy?

Apparently not, but it is no good us hiding behind these hardships or injustices. Complaining about them just sounds like making excuses. We have to deal with the situation as it is.

In a recent radio discussion programme, chairman of the European chamber of commerce Inaki Amate had some useful observations and suggestions. He naturally commented on two issues of concern to expats where we score badly: the fact that many flats here are ridiculously small and those of reasonable size are absurdly expensive; he also highlighted the difficulties in finding suitable kindergarten places at reasonable prices.

But he also had a positive message: in spite of all these difficulties Hong Kong is still a tremendous place to live and work, especially for expats. For example Chinese language ability while obviously desirable is not mandatory. It is perfectly possible to enjoy a career here working in English only. Moreover far and away the best marketing tool for Hong Kong is ourselves: the people who live here and the community we have built. The best way of correcting the false image of Hong Kong held by many in the west would be to get them to come here so they can see for themselves the actual situation. I think Amate is on to something here. The more people we can persuade to visit, even if it is only for a short time, the better. Even if they don’t immediately decide to stay, the message they will carry back to their home countries of a peaceful orderly city with exceptional public transport and outstanding scenery will start to undermine the negative narrative being propagated by some. In particular we should be taking a closer look at schemes for attracting younger visitors (six-month work visas on arrival, extendable if they get a job? Subsidised hostel places?)

Hong Kong is a great product. We should have confidence it can sell itself if we can get people here to look.