China asks foreign business leaders how to revive Hong Kong in rare move

Visitors attend an exhibition Wednesday marking the 25th anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to Chinese rule. Bloomberg/Paul Yeung

China asked foreign business chambers in Hong Kong how to revive the isolated financial hub’s economy in listening sessions weeks before new leader John Lee takes office, according to multiple people familiar with the matter.

The Liaison Office, Beijing’s main body overseeing Hong Kong, sent invitations to commerce heads across the city in early June to seek their opinions on the challenges of operating in Hong Kong and mainland China, the people said. They said the chambers responded with one overriding message End quarantine altogether as soon as possible.

The people, who represent different chambers, said the meetings marked a major shift from previous exchanges in which officials spoke through translators, with the Chinese side appearing to show genuine interest in understanding the pain points of foreign businesses.

The mainland officials mainly present listened while other staff took notes, the people said, making it unclear if Beijing will act on any of the suggestions. One person who attended one of the meetings said it was conducted in English, lasted 90 minutes and included Wang Danfeng, a key member of the economic department.

The invites included five questions, including one asking for “suggestions” or “advice” on how the Hong Kong government could improve the local business environment and others that focused on operations in mainland China, according to an email seen by Bloomberg News.

The Liaison Office didn’t respond to a request for comment.

The listening campaign came weeks before Lee takes office on July 1, and reflects China’s increasing concern about poor economic data on both sides of the border.

Lee inherits a financial hub that’s been isolated internationally due to Hong Kong’s inability to open up to the world, in part due to pressure from the mainland to avoid venturing too far from President Xi Jinping’s strict COVID Zero policy on the mainland. Hong Kong’s economy contracted 4 percent in the first quarter, one of its worst performances of the past 30 years, and has seen an outpouring of expatriate talent to places like Singapore.

China’s strict COVID Zero policy employing mass testing drives and lockdowns has also punished the mainland’s economy. Chinese Premier Li Keqiang gave a stark warning at an emergency meeting last month that the country’s economic growth is moving further out of reach from the growth target of 5.5 percent amid severe strain from pandemic measures.

While China shows no signs of deviating from its pandemic policy any time soon, Hong Kong has drifted from COVID Zero in recent months. Officials have reduced incoming hotel quarantine from 21 to seven days for vaccinated arrivals and resisted imposing harsh social curbs despite seeing a rebound in cases topping some 1,000 daily infections.

In his first public comments on his pandemic policy, Lee this week vowed to try to reduce inconveniences to traveler while adding that he’d need to do so “without bringing extra risk to the mainland.” His government will “review” mandatory quarantine measures for incoming travelers, he said, and suggested reducing its length or introducing home isolation.

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