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A fairytale finish amid trying times

Gold Coast, Australia, 21 December 2022: “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” Or, in Lionel Messi’s case, have multiple goes at it. The Argentine icon, playing in his fifth – and almost certainly last – World Cup at the age of 35, has finally lifted football’s most prestigious trophy thanks to his team’s thrilling victory over France on Sunday. Willed on by his nation, the diminutive genius rolled back the years, scoring twice in a 3-3 draw before Argentina prevailed on penalties. While I was supporting Les Bleus – in deference to my French son-in-law Vincent – I could not begrudge Messi his epic, enthralling and emotional crowning glory. It was, perhaps, the greatest World Cup final and I simply felt privileged to be there.

Try, try again. Persistent John Lee today heads for Beijing where, in presenting his traditional end-of-year work report, our Chief Executive will seek progress on the full reopening of Hong Kong’s border with the Mainland. Our beloved city is desperate for quarantine-free travel with the north to boost the economy, revive tourism and, not least, allow many families to reunite for the first time in three years. “I believe this is the prevalent voice and I will reflect that to the state leaders,” he confirms.

Good luck with that. Having maintained strict border controls as it stuck rigidly with zero-Covid, Beijing is facing a surge in cases after relaxing some anti-pandemic rules. In such circumstances, it will not mark Mr Lee’s visit with a “gift to Hong Kong”, predicts Lau Siu-kai, Vice Chairman of the Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macau Studies think tank. Like predecessor Carrie Lam, our Chief Executive appears destined to return with only vague assurances.

In any event, Hong Kong continues to ease social distancing rules, although nowhere near quickly enough for many citizens. If, like me, you have travelled overseas and witnessed real normality – no testing or quarantine and barely a mask in sight (even in a packed football stadium) – then the city’s paranoid pandemic outlook is both baffling and bothersome.

Our stubborn leaders have, at long last, ushered in the so-called “0+0” policy for arrivals, meaning incoming travellers are no longer barred from restaurants and various other venues for the first three days of their stay. Further, cinemas, museums and performance venues will be allowed to operate at full capacity (after being limited to 85%) from tomorrow, while the widely-derided (and easily circumvented) regulation to enter a bar or nightclub – produce photographic proof of a negative rapid test taken in the previous 24 hours – is also, thankfully, being dropped.

Alas, these relaxations have not come in time for the Hong Kong Football Association to ride the World Cup wave and resurrect its Lunar New Year Cup next month. The showpiece tournament, which features leading club teams from around the region, was last staged in 2019, since when Covid has consistently kicked it into touch. “This is still not the appropriate time for bringing in overseas teams,” laments Chairman Pui Kwan-kay. The HKFA will have to try, try again next year.

This setback is a further illustration that our city is far from back to normal. While the Chief Executive points out, with justification, that he has scrapped 90% of social distancing measures, Hong Kong’s anti-epidemic rules remain among the world’s toughest. Mask wearing is mandatory in most circumstances; group gatherings of more than 12 people are banned; residents must show proof of vaccination to enter restaurants; incoming travellers are tested on arrival (one of eight tests they must perform, and a positive result in any of these triggers an isolation order which can mean being sent to a government quarantine camp); and all students must take a daily rapid test to attend school.

The strict regime continues to deter visitors, a fact acknowledged by the Airport Authority’s Chief Operating Officer, Vivian Cheung: “Many people are still hesitant to come, they’re worried about testing positive.” Since the pandemic began, Hong Kong has been eclipsed as Asia’s busiest air hub by Singapore, which dropped most of its restrictions seven months ago. Our airport handled just 1.05 million passengers last month, barely a fifth of the number in November 2019.

I will do my public-spirited bit to increase passenger traffic when I return to Hong Kong next month. For now, I’ve departed Qatar – having attended 27 World Cup matches in four weeks – for a festive family holiday on Australia’s Gold Coast, where I shall try, try again to improve my golf game. It also means you, dear readers, can have a break from me. This column will resume in a few weeks.

If the magical Messi didn’t fluff his lines, spare a thought for someone who did: engineering professor William Wong, one of four new pro-Beijing Legislative Councillors sworn in on Monday following a by-election the previous day. In taking the oath of office, he stumbled over his words, thus breaking a requirement to get the pledge spot on that was introduced in 2016 after firebrand opposition lawmakers deliberately mispronounced it.

Patriot or not, Legislature Secretary General Kenneth Chen was taking no chances and politely asked William to repeat the entire oath correctly, which he duly did. If at first you don’t succeed …

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year, everybody!

Colin Cohen
Senior Partner
Boase Cohen & Collins

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