Chief Executive John Lee hailed “Hong Kong’s close connection with the world and strong support from the motherland” as the city’s “distinct advantages” during a speech to open the seventh Belt and Road Summit on Wednesday.

“Hong Kong is a longstanding supporter and practitioner of free market and multilateralism,” Lee said. “We believe in reducing trade barriers and ensuring the free flow of goods and services, people and capital.” 

Chief Executive John Lee delivers the opening speech of the seventh Belt and Road Initiative on August 31, 2022. Photo: GovHK.

Hong Kong has been largely cut off from the outside world since February 2020, when the government halted free movement across its borders. The city’s version of China’s “zero-Covid” policy has coincided with an exodus of talent and shrinking GDP.

The two-day summit was held at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre and, because of the city’s strict Covid-19 rules for foreign arrivals was also streamed online. Senior government officials and international business leaders attended the event. 

Chinese Vice Premier Han Zheng, who delivered the event’s keynote speech via video link, said that Hong Kong had played an important role in the Belt and Road Initiative. Han urged the city to provide legal, financial and other professional services, and expressed Beijing’s support for the One Country, Two Systems model.

One of Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s signature foreign policies, the trade and development strategy, has seen Beijing invest in infrastructure in more than 100 countries, many of them in the Global South. 

By 2049, the project aims to establish road and rail links from China, through Central Asia to Europe, and maritime routes to Southeast Asia, South Asia, the Middle East and Africa.

A 2019 map of the proposed Belt and Road Initiative. Photo: Researchgate.

Supporters of the strategy say it will help boost trade and raise GDP in participating nations and across the globe. Critics, however, highlight the environmental impact of such development and the possibility of debt-trap diplomacy, with countries encouraged to accept loans they cannot repay. 

At the summit, Lee said the Belt and Road Initiative was “built on collaboration” and brought “infrastructure creation” and “trade and investment co-operation.” 

“The Belt and Road is inclusive. And so is Hong Kong,” he said. “We invite the world to work with us together.” 

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Mercedes Hutton

Mercedes is a Hong Kong-based British journalist with an interest in environmental and social issues. She has written for the Guardian and the BBC and previously worked at the South China Morning Post.