Hong Kong leader John Lee has cancelled a trip to mainland China aimed at resuming cross-border travel, illustrating the quagmire facing the financial hub as it struggles to exit nearly three years of economically devastating isolation.
Lee said on Wednesday he would discuss the border situation with mainland Chinese officials online instead of face to face due to rising COVID-19 cases on both sides of the border.
Lee, who took office following a Beijing-managed “patriots-only” election in May, was scheduled to travel to Guangzhou and neighbouring tech hub Shenzhen to discuss ways to restart travel between Hong Kong and mainland China.
“We will discuss the cross-border arrangement for residents in Hong Kong and mainland China and I hope that, after thorough discussion, a consensus can be reached,” Lee told reporters, describing the virtual talks scheduled for Thursday as the “most convenient” option.
Hong Kong, which follows a less stringent version of China’s draconian “zero-COVID” policy, has been largely cut off from the Chinese mainland and the rest of the world since authorities closed the borders in February 2020.
The pandemic curbs have pummelled economic activity, strained residents’ mental health, and fuelled a mass exodus of people and capital from the international financial centre, which for decades has marketed itself as “Asia’s World City”.
Hong Kong’s gross domestic product (GDP) shrank 1.4 percent in the April-June period, following a 3.9 percent decline in the first quarter, sending the city into a technical recession for the second time in three years.
Although the Chinese-ruled city earlier this month reduced the period of hotel quarantine for international arrivals to three days, its travel restrictions remain far out of step with other economies, including regional rivals such as Singapore.
Despite pledging to restore the city’s connectivity, Lee has not laid out a specific roadmap or timetable for reopening, with many observers suspecting that such a decision would depend on Beijing ditching its controversial zero-tolerance strategy.
“The aim of the original trip was talks on cross-border people exchanges, and the cancellation shows there is ironically none,” Gary Ng, a senior economist at Natixis in Hong Kong, told Al Jazeera
“With the ‘zero-Covid’ dream, it would be hard for Hong Kong to reopen its borders with mainland China unless there is a U-turn in policy. For now, we are not seeing it yet. The never-ending restrictions will remain the biggest hurdles for normalising cross-border movement.”