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Old backdrop to a new political order

Hong Kong, 15 September 2021: “If you build it, they will come.” It’s a quote adapted from the classic 1989 film Field of Dreams in which a corn farmer in Iowa (played by Kevin Costner) risks his livelihood to construct a baseball diamond on his land and the ghosts of past players arrive to take part in a game. The phrase has since become commonplace in the business world: if you are bold enough with your venture, people will support it.

So, in this optimistic spirit, you have to admire the Hong Kong Tourism Board’s leap of faith in devising a new bells-and-whistles promotional campaign when we don’t have any actual tourists. “Creating Modern Traditions” brings together more than 50 shops, restaurants and other outlets in West Kowloon to showcase traditional crafts, arts and culture, and authentic cuisine. Examples include a small business which has been producing fermented bean curd and other sauces in the same location since the 1920s and our city’s only remaining sandalwood fan store, dating from 1958. Visitors are encouraged to explore the district and enjoy these historic treasures of old-world Hong Kong. 

To be fair, the Tourism Board is making the best of extremely difficult circumstances. “We have chosen to launch this large-scale promotion before borders reopen because we want residents to savour the experience first and discover hidden gems in their community,” says Executive Director Dane Cheng. And to a large extent, he’s correct. I’ve lived here 40 years yet can still wonder down a bustling side street for the first time and find something new.

But it’s the slimmest of slim pickings. In 2018 – before the protests and Covid-19 – total visitor arrivals to Hong Kong were more than 65 million. In that year, the tourism industry amounted to 4.5% of this city’s GDP and employed around 257,000 persons, accounting for about 6.6% of total employment. In the first six months of this year, total visitor arrivals were 33,749. Put simply, the monthly average number of tourists here has decreased 99.9% in three years.

When will our borders reopen properly? Hong Kong’s delegate to the National People’s Congress Standing Committee, Tam Yiu-chung, is hopeful that keeping local (as opposed to imported) Covid-19 cases down to zero and reaching a high vaccination rate might be enough to convince Beijing to relax travel restrictions between here and the mainland soon. Not so fast, according to a Guangdong government source, who told the South China Morning Post that March or April is more realistic. Ouch!

Our Chief Executive Carrie Lam has proposed to Beijing that a dialogue be established between local and mainland medical experts to work towards the goal of resuming quarantine-free travel. Earlier, she declined to comment on widespread speculation that the border will only be reopened after the Beijing Winter Olympics in February. Since our leaders have made resuming travel with the mainland this city’s top priority over international destinations – hence their “zero Covid” strategy and draconian quarantine regime – it’s obvious we’re not going anywhere, both literally and metaphorically.

Anyone who chooses to venture out to support the Tourism Board’s initiative this coming Sunday is liable to bump into a policeman or two, possibly in riot gear. We are told the force will deploy some 4,000 officers to enhance security for the first polls since the recent major electoral overhaul imposed by Beijing – designed to ensure only “patriots” run Hong Kong – even though voters will be almost as scarce as tourists. Sunday’s polls are for the revamped and ultra-powerful Election Committee, which is now tasked not just with picking the Chief Executive, but also nominating lawmakers and even fielding representatives of its own in the Legislative Council. More than 75% of the Election Committee’s 1,500 seats are being filled uncontested, meaning only 364 seats will be decided by 4,889 eligible voters.

The elections may be limited to a privileged minority but Beijing has insisted those involved should hit the streets to boost public interest. So, we had the unusual sight last Saturday of hundreds of prominent business figures, sons and daughters of tycoons and various political heavyweights manning some 1,000 information booths in baking heat, handing out leaflets and talking with residents. Not everyone was impressed. Political analyst Chung Kim-wah from the Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute dismissed the exercise as a “publicity stunt”.

Citizens such as I will cast our votes in the Legislative Council elections on 19 December, although much has changed since we last did so in 2016. Under Beijing’s reforms, the LegCo has expanded from 70 to 90 seats but the number of directly elected seats is reduced from 35 to 20. Moreover, candidates must earn a prescribed number of nominations from the Election Committee and be vetted by the new Candidate Eligibility Review Committee – chaired by Carrie Lam’s No.2 John Lee – which may also consult the National Security Committee. We are waiting to see if our city’s various opposition parties, mainly democratic in their outlook, bother trying to field candidates.

Last Sunday’s legislative elections in neighbouring Macau may be a pointer to what we can expect. Less than 43% of voters took part, with a surge in blank and invalid ballots, some of which contained vulgarities, following the banning of 21 opposition figures from the race. The modest turnout compared with 57% in 2017 and was the lowest since Macau returned to Chinese rule in 1999. Officials blamed bad weather and the pandemic for the apparent disinterest. So, it will be riveting to see how Hong Kong voters react to our revamped LegCo. Beijing has built it, will they come?

Stay safe and well, everybody!

Colin Cohen
Senior Partner
Boase Cohen & Collins

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