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My return to primitive thinking

Hong Kong, 17 August 2022: In the classic 1974 fantasy film The Land That Time Forgot, a World War I German U-boat crew and their American captives veer off course in the South Atlantic and end up in Caprona, an uncharted subcontinent populated by dinosaurs and ancient tribes. Their reaction is one of amazement: how could somewhere like this exist in the modern world?

I had the same thought returning to Hong Kong last week after four months away. Europe had been buzzing, with all talk – or even thought – of Covid-19 banished, nary a face mask in sight and RAT tests a distant memory. Travel was a breeze, restaurants and shops enjoyed brisk business and sports events were packed. Smiles everywhere. So Hong Kong’s joyless obsession with the coronavirus brought me back to reality with a jolt. Asia’s World City? Oh, please.

First, the (minor) positives. During my absence, new Chief Executive John Lee and his advisory team have sensibly scrapped the despised flight suspension mechanism, so we (that is me, daughter Marianne, her husband Vincent and their son Nathan) were at least certain of returning as scheduled. Our leaders have also cut the seven days hotel quarantine to three, followed by four days of self-monitoring, which made coming back less daunting. And the dreaded airport arrival experience, with its endless queueing, form filling, checking and testing – as detailed in all its dismal wretchedness in this inspired account – has, in recent days, speeded up considerably.

But let’s be clear, any sort of quarantine is unnecessary, unscientific and unhelpful to Hong Kong as we seek to kick-start the economy, encourage business travel and bring back tourists. The strict social distancing (we remain limited to groups of four outside) is ridiculous. Likewise, why are we still wearing masks outdoors? Continued use of the track-and-trace LeaveHomeSafe app is, in the opinion of many, pointless. Forget time, this is the land that logic forgot.

While la famille Cohen has returned to Hong Kong, huge numbers of citizens have left and are continuing to do so. Figures just released by the Census and Statistics Department are alarming. This city’s population has dropped by 1.6% to around 7.29 million, marking the largest percentage decline over a 12-month period since records began in 1961. Some 113,200 residents left in the past year, hot on the heels of 89,200 who departed in the previous 12 months. “Residents who had left before the pandemic may have chosen to reside in other places temporarily or were unable to return. All these might have contributed to the net outflow,” said a government spokesman with a straight face. We all know the real reasons.

The exodus is exacerbating the long-term demographic issue of an ageing population combined with low birth rate. Our city recorded 61,600 deaths and 35,100 births in the past year. The birthrate has plunged almost 30% in two years. Pandemic woes, economic worries and the chronic housing shortage mean fewer couples are having children. It is also worth noting the crude marriage rate – the number of marriages per 1,000 in the population – hit 30-year lows of 6.7 for women and 8.0 for men in 2021.

Professor Paul Yip, a population health expert at the University of Hong Kong, predicts the emigration wave will persist for at least another two or three years as citizens, especially young professionals and fresh graduates, take advantage of immigration pathways provided by countries such as the UK, Canada and Australia. “The pull and push factors are in one direction, which go against Hong Kong,” he observes.

Among those who have packed their bags is our old South China Morning Post friend Cliff Buddle, my guest on Law & More a few months ago. A widely respected commentator on Hong Kong affairs, Cliff echoes the thoughts of many in his recent column revealing his departure: “The tough Covid-19 measures have lasted too long. They have sucked much of the joy out of everyday life and left the city isolated.”

They have also devastated many lives. The number of homeless people in Hong Kong has surged to a 10-year high of 1,581, according to official statistics. This same period has seen a massive rise in female street sleepers, from 21 in 2012 to 179 last year. Social workers say the pandemic has been a major factor, with citizens losing their jobs and income, but there are also deep-rooted issues. “The widening wealth gap, the housing problem, as well as a lack of government policies have led more people to sleep rough,” says Brian Wong of Liber Research Community, an NGO focusing on social development issues.

Is there any good news? Yes! Appropriately for a city with prehistoric pandemic policies, we have dinosaurs. A major exhibition, “The Big Eight – Dinosaur Revelation”, has opened at the Science Museum, showcasing eight original and reconstructed skeletons. Among items on display are a Diplodocus, Allosaurus, Hesperosaurus and, naturally, a Tyrannosaurus. Nathan, who is fascinated by these creatures, can’t wait for me to take him.

Which brings me neatly back to The Land That Time Forgot, based on the 1918 novel by prolific author Edgar Rice Burroughs. As this city combats Covid, political discord and housing shortages, we desperately need our Chief Executive to swing into action, just like Burroughs’ most famous fictional character. That would be the jungle-residing, lion-wrestling Viscount Greystoke. Or, as we know him, Tarzan.

Stay safe and well, everybody!

Colin Cohen
Senior Partner
Boase Cohen & Collins

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