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Border discussions less than fruitful

Hong Kong, 29 September 2021: Our Urban Renewal Authority has upset the applecart in recent days by unveiling a radical blueprint – four years in the making – to overhaul two old and densely built districts, Yau Ma Tei and Mong Kok. The scheme, hailed as “thinking out of the box” by urban planners and supported by the government, would see relaxed planning restrictions, more open areas and new blocks of subsidised housing.

The masterplan includes a proposal to relocate the historic Yau Ma Tei Wholesale Fruit Market, which has operated at the corner of Waterloo Road and Reclamation Street since 1913, to a nearby street and transform its current site into a tourist attraction that would be fruit retail only. All well and good, except nobody informed the vendors who work there. “The URA’s idea is not feasible because retail and wholesale cannot be separated,” fumed Cheung Chi-cheong, Vice-Chairman of the Kowloon Fruit and Vegetable Merchants Association, adding that his organisation only heard about the proposal when it was presented to the Legislative Council last Friday.

District Councillor Derek Chu was also unimpressed, but for different reasons. Looking at the bigger picture, he noted nothing was being done to systematically repair old buildings in the two districts. The URA study covers 212 hectares and some 3,350 buildings, of which 65% are at least 50 years old, with a significant number containing some of this city’s notorious sub-divided flats. He has a point. Our Chief Executive Carrie Lam has, after all, pledged to make Hong Kong’s chronic housing shortage her top priority in the final year of her term, although this does leave some observers wondering what she’s been focusing on until now.

Housing aside, Carrie & Co’s more immediate concern is reopening the border – effectively closed due to Covid-19 for the past 18 months – with mainland China. To this end, Chief Secretary John Lee led a delegation to Shenzhen last weekend for “constructive” talks with Beijing officials, although there was little to set pulses racing. The hopeful Hongkongers were told they must improve in three areas – screening of inbound travellers, the quarantine system and the city’s overall approach to risk – in order to pave the way for … yes, you guessed it … further discussions.

“Our focus is to build a strong foundation to increase the mainland’s confidence in Hong Kong,” said Mr Lee, although he did not directly answer questions on whether a date for reopening the border had been set. One of Carrie’s top advisors, Executive Council member Bernard Chan, admitted there were no clear steps Hong Kong could take to convince Beijing to throw open the gates: “Our hands are tied. You have to meet their standards, and the trouble right now is, we’re not so sure.”

So, folks, we’re stuck with this administration’s zero-Covid strategy – and accompanying draconian quarantine regulations – for the foreseeable future. From everything I have read and heard so far, I expect it will be another six months at least before we see a significant shift in policy, and many of my friends share this opinion. All this amid mounting evidence that zero-Covid is simply not sustainable. To this end, I offer this short blog from OT&P Healthcare’s Dr Tim Trodd as the latest required reading.

Our city’s vaccination programme, meanwhile, continues to wane, as many observers predicted it would once enthusiasm for incentives offered in a blaze of publicity by the business community dried up. Just over 60% of the population have received at least one jab. However, the number of doses being administered daily has dropped to 22,000 (compared with a high of almost 70,000 in early July) and some two-thirds of these are second doses. To put it in perspective, just 7,051 citizens received their first dose yesterday. At this rate, the statisticians have calculated, we won’t reach the much-hyped “70% for herd immunity” figure until after Christmas. In any case, many health professionals will tell you the 70% goal is mythical, what really counts is who has been vaccinated. Our elderly citizens have the lowest inoculation rates of all groups. Less than 40% of those in their 70s and just 14.3% of those aged 80 or older have received at least one shot.

One of the more venerable members of our community who has lost absolutely none of his sharpness or wit is the esteemed barrister Clive Grossman SC, who was on top form when he joined me for the latest episode of our Law & More podcast. His stories about the law and witchcraft during his early legal career in Rhodesia are especially eye-opening. Please listen when you have time. While Clive is in the glorious autumn of his distinguished career, someone just setting out is my colleague Claire Chow, who was admitted as a solicitor this past weekend. On behalf of all at BC&C, I offer her my sincere congratulations.

In closing, I should salute an unusual event last Saturday called “The Wave”, organised by reluctant guests at one of our city’s quarantine hotels. More than 100 individuals staying at the Nina Hotel Island South stood at their windows facing the hill behind the property and waved at family, friends and strangers, who had shown up to return the gesture. Well done to all involved and I hope it relieved the tedium for those incarcerated. After all, as our Yau Ma Tei fruit vendors can attest, being on the receiving end of Hong Kong officialdom is enough to drive you bananas.

Stay safe and well, everybody!

Colin Cohen
Senior Partner
Boase Cohen & Collins

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