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Keeping our recovery on track

London, 12 June 2024: The world’s longest railway trip without changing trains is from Moscow to Pyongyang, a distance of 10,214km. The service runs once a week, covering sections of the famous Trans-Siberian line. You have plenty of time to admire the scenery, given it takes almost eight days. The famous Indian Pacific service between Sydney and Perth, meanwhile, remains a test of endurance even at half this time. Clocking in at three days is the spectacular journey from Toronto to Vancouver.

By comparison, a 12-hour overnight trip from Hong Kong to Beijing is a sprint. Ditto the journey to Shanghai, an hour faster. The new high-speed sleeper services operated by China Railway will begin this Saturday evening, replacing the traditional “through train” which ran to the two mainland cities pre-pandemic and took almost twice as long.

Transport minister Lam Sai-hung is buckling up for a “memorable trip”, having snared a bed on the first Beijing-bound express. Services to both cities will run once a day from Fridays to Mondays, although this could soon be seven days a week if demand is high. In a possible pointer, tickets for the first three trains to the capital sold out in hours. Certainly, Lam sees “great potential” for attracting business travellers and tourists. Our leader John Lee is another fan, urging all sectors of society to “seize the opportunities” that stem from enhanced connectivity with the mainland.

The new train service is timely, given that our citizens are relishing the chance to travel in the aftermath of Covid. Residents have made some 74.6 million outbound trips via Hong Kong’s land boundary checkpoints with mainland China and Macau in the past 12 months, amounting to roughly 10 per person. Shopping and entertainment are the main attractions, we are told. Commerce minister Algernon Yau attributes this trend to the growth of the Greater Bay Area, the economic and technology superhub comprising Hong Kong, Macau and nine cities in Guangdong Province. He insists the imbalance with mainland arrivals – just 28 million over the same period – is not a major concern since our city “has long been recognised as an events capital”. Hmm.

Those heading north include 100 students on a government-funded internship programme in Shanghai. Forget the sleeper train, though, these bright young bucks have just enjoyed the debut commercial flight from our city by China’s first home-grown narrowbody passenger jet, the C919. Reason to rejoice, according to government No.2 Eric Chan, citing the flight as “a good example of patriotic education”. More pertinently, Cathay Pacific is taking note of the airliner, produced by the state-backed Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China, with CX chief executive Ronald Lam predicting a future “ABC” market for passenger jets: Airbus, Boeing and COMAC.

Our flag carrier is back in rude health, recording a US$1.25 billion profit last year after catastrophic losses during Covid. Even so, CX has endured a patchy recovery in playing catch-up with airlines from countries which returned to normal quicker us. Hence the fanfare in announcing the relaunch of its service to Riyadh – suspended since 2017 – as our city strengthens ties with Saudi Arabia. Not before time, John Lee might observe, given that a delegation he led had to take indirect flights to the Saudi capital last year.

Riyadh aside, the airline is under pressure to expand its routes to the Middle East and Asia to boost our city’s flagging economy and tourism. Impatient lawmaker Jeffrey Lam wants it to hurry up. “We can’t afford to be slow and lagging behind. Cathay can definitely provide more offerings,” he insists. In a diplomatic response, chairman Patrick Healy confirms CX will not expand into new routes until after it restores full capacity by the first quarter of next year. Speeding up the timeline “is not the right thing to do”, he stresses.

Thankfully, CX’s London route is fully operational, thus bringing me to my birthplace before I head off to Germany tomorrow for a month of Euros football. Alas, a survey reveals that more than 30% of Hong Kong students plan to bet on the tournament, with marketing blitzes from illegal online gambling platforms exacerbating the problem. “Teenagers are not aware of the risks of illegal bookmaking while gambling brings more excitement to them,” notes clinical psychologist Ching Fung-yee. Legitimate bookies list my beloved England – the team that can be relied upon to let you down – as favourites.

Being in the UK capital has allowed me to catch up with several friends who live here, including Bloomberg journalist Douglas Wong, one of my earlier guests on Law & More. His fellow Malaysian and Marlborough College alumni Chua Guan-Hock SC features in our latest podcast, reflecting on his long and successful legal career in Hong Kong. Please listen.

In closing, I should mention one of the week’s major talking points: a viral photo of a woman on a Hong Kong tram with a giant mattress. She rode from Happy Valley to Central before it was brought to the driver’s attention and she was asked to disembark, prompting internet users to speculate how she had managed to heave it on board unnoticed.

Quite a feat, I submit, and one which shows our high-speed trains are not the only transport with sleeping facilities.

Until next time, everybody!

Colin Cohen
Senior Partner
Boase Cohen & Collins

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