Hong Kong, 1 February 2023: There is a wonderful sketch in BBC comedy classic The Two Ronnies where Messrs Corbett and Barker send up the uber-serious quiz show, Mastermind. Contestant Charlie Smithers (Corbett), having previously replied to questions before they were asked, this time answers the question before last, with hilarious results. Alas, nothing so original or ingenious from our government, which simply answers the question by saying as little as possible.
A prime example is our leaders’ handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. There have been growing calls across the community – including pro-establishment politicians and government pandemic advisors – for an independent review into this city’s calamitous response. Lest we forget, despite access to effective vaccines, strict social distancing rules and months to prepare for the inevitable, we saw our hospitals swamped and fatalities go through the roof. Hong Kong topped the world for mortality rate in 2022 while building multiple isolation facilities (at eye-watering cost) that were never used. Citizens, naturally, would like to know what happened, if only so we may learn lessons and avoid a repeat. So, can we have a public inquiry?
No need, insists Chief Executive John Lee. “The epidemic situation has been changing rapidly, and local governments respond in real time according to the situation. There is no recognised best or standard solution.” He contends his administration is constantly reviewing and improving pandemic policies. Be in no doubt, my friends, “What went wrong?” is the burning question this administration wishes would go away.
John Lee, having inherited a Covid catastrophe from predecessor Carrie Lam seven months ago, wants to move on. And do we really need a review? There is no better documentary evidence than this pertinent assessment from Dr David Owens, who details the myopia and mismanagement and concludes our leaders chose politics over science. This might also explain Hong Kong’s ongoing mask mandate. Our Chief Executive insists it will remain until the winter flu surge is over, most likely April. Which begs the question, will he be imposing it every year?
If facial coverings have become ubiquitous during our government’s pandemic response, so have cash handouts, which have been distributed each year since 2020 in an effort to ease economic woes. First, residents had HK$10,000 transferred to their bank accounts, followed by consumption e-vouchers worth HK$5,000 and HK$10,000 in an effort to encourage spending at local businesses. There are hopes Financial Secretary Paul Chan – who has yet to make up his mind on the issue – will flash the cash again in this month’s budget. The largest pro-establishment party, the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, and the Business and Professionals Alliance for Hong Kong are among the influential groups asking for more.
Others disagree, including Executive Council Convenor Regina Ip: “Government resources are limited, so they should invest in the long-term development of Hong Kong instead.” She also points out, quite rightly, that “appropriate anti-poverty measures are still needed”. It’s doubtful she had in mind tax breaks for middle-class families who hire foreign domestic workers, but this is what the Financial Secretary is pondering. Seriously. Some might ask why citizens who can afford to pay someone to do their household chores need further funding. And with extensive checks required on the employment documents of this city’s 330,000 helpers, it would create an administrative headache. These being the same helpers, by the way, who were denied e-vouchers last year despite non-permanent residents being eligible for the first time.
Another feature of Covid-era Hong Kong, of course, is this city’s obvious talent drain. More than 113,000 residents – many of them graduates and young professionals – left in the 12 months up to mid-2022, with some 89,000 jumping ship in the year before. Singapore, with its much lower Covid fatality rate and faster reopening, has been a major beneficiary. Should we be worried? No, assures former Chief Executive CY Leung, the outflow is only temporary and companies prefer being here since it is the gateway to China: “We don’t need to mention Singapore all the time. They have their opportunities and we have our own.” Headhunters are less bullish, cautioning our city has lost some firms for good, while those that do eventually return will incur costs.
The exodus has, naturally, hit our economy, which continues to suffer pandemic pain. The Hong Kong Monetary Authority (HKMA) has revealed its Exchange Fund, the war chest used to defend the Hong Kong dollar from attacks by short-sellers, had its worst year on record in 2022 with a loss of HK$202 billion (that’s a cool US$26 billion, folks). Ouch! The Russia-Ukraine conflict and global pandemic fallout are to blame, apparently. What about the property market? Look away, home owners. Plunging prices have driven property value below outstanding loans, causing a dramatic increase in the number of negative equity cases, according to the HKMA, which is clearly having a tough week.
Any happy news? Step this way! The future of our iconic Star Ferry seems more secure now the Executive Council has approved fare increases of up to 56% for the 125-year-old service that offers quick – and emphatically spectacular – crossings of Victoria Harbour. This, plus plans to rejuvenate its three piers into cultural and entertainment hotspots, has the company believing it can break even within two years, having racked up heavy losses since 2020.
Even so, there are some misguided citizens asking if the Star Ferry – an integral part of this city’s heritage – is worth keeping. You don’t have to be a Mastermind contestant, dear readers, to answer the question with an emphatic yes.
Stay safe and well, everybody!
Boase Cohen & Collins