By Holmes Chan and Su Xinqi

Hundreds of top bankers will arrive in Hong Kong this week to hear the government’s sales pitch that — despite lingering pandemic curbs and entrenched US-China tensions — the city is once again open for business.

Skyscrapers in Central. Photo: GovHK.

The Chinese finance hub has prepared a high-profile summit, including a glitzy banquet at a newly opened art museum to woo financial bigwigs, hoping to outshine regional rivals like Singapore, London and Tokyo.

Wednesday’s gathering has come under fire from some United States lawmakers, who said Wall Street’s luminaries are “whitewashing human rights violations” with their presence and giving political cover to city leader John Lee.

Chief Executive John Lee speaking at the National Day reception on October 1, 2022. Photo: HKFP.

Lee, who is scheduled to deliver an opening keynote speech, is among Chinese officials sanctioned by Washington for their role in cracking down on human rights in Hong Kong.

He is, as a result, unable to hold a bank account at the financial giants whose top executives will share the stage with him this week.

“Business as usual in Hong Kong is the wrong choice for these companies,” said the leaders of the bipartisan US Congressional-Executive Commission on China.

The event still has plenty of cheerleaders from local industry, anxious to maintain Hong Kong’s standing as a global finance hub.

Financial services sector lawmaker Robert Lee. Photo: LegCo.

“We need to… paint a more positive picture about the real situation,” financial services sector lawmaker Robert Lee told AFP.

“Hong Kong is open for business. I think that message should be loud and clear.”

Restrictions remain

Since Lee’s administration took office in July, officials have billed the summit as a watershed moment to show that the city has left behind China’s strict zero-Covid strategy.

Hong Kong finally scrapped mandatory hotel quarantine in September. Many controls, however, remain in place — curbs that rival cities have long abandoned.

Overseas arrivals must undergo frequent testing and are unable to go to bars and restaurants for their first three days in the city.

Restrictions on various gatherings remain and masks are compulsory, including outdoors.

Red code and amber code. Photo: GovHK.

The finance summit is being held at the Four Seasons hotel and partial exemptions have been granted so bankers can “have meals with others in private rooms” and visit venues that would otherwise be off-limits.

Those who test positive will be permitted to skip isolation and leave by private flights if they can.

“Covid restrictions are hurting us,” said Mike Rowse, a former civil servant who promoted the city to foreign investors.

“I used to travel around the world selling Hong Kong… When you finish (that pitch) you say: ‘Come and see for yourself’. But right now you can’t say that.”

Paul Chan at a business breakfast on Wednesday in Saudi Arabia. Photo: GovHK.

The delicate balance between convenience and pandemic control was thrown into sharp relief last week, when Hong Kong finance chief Paul Chan caught the coronavirus while abroad — potentially forcing him to skip the conference.

Citigroup CEO Jane Fraser. Photo: Citigroup.

Citigroup CEO Jane Fraser also contracted the virus and pulled out of the event, removing one of the few senior women at a gathering otherwise dominated by men.

Top officials have promised to keep reopening.

But Aries Wong, an economist at Hong Kong Baptist University, said the incremental tweaks mean little to foreign firms unless controls are fully scrapped.

“There is still policy uncertainty because if the controls remain on the books, it means they can potentially be tightened if things worsen again,” Wong told AFP.

Gateway to China

International firms are also caught in the middle of fraying US-China trade ties and competing sanction regimes that make compliance a headache.

The former British colony has been under Beijing’s tightening grip after authorities cracked down on huge and often violent pro-democracy protests in 2019.

Protest scenes in Admiralty, Hong Kong on September 29, 2019. Photo: Studio Incendo.

“China’s government has suggested that Hong Kong’s distinct status as a global economic connector remains firmly intact,” said Austin Strange, an international relations scholar at the University of Hong Kong.

“The international community is less settled on this issue, and will look to actual policies and measures… rather than take official statements at face value.”

The issue of US sanctions arose again earlier this month when Lee’s government made clear it would not follow US, European and British sanctions against Russia over Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine.

The Golden Bauhinia in Hong Kong. Photo: GovHK.

While Hong Kong’s closeness to China may be a geopolitical liability, it is also the very heart of the city’s appeal to the many banks present at the summit.

Hong Kong remains China’s prime gateway to international markets and foreign capital.

Laurence Li, the head of Hong Kong’s financial industry advisory body, said China is pushing ahead with measures to more seamlessly connect Hong Kong markets to the mainland.

“No one in the world can afford not to interact with China… Hong Kong remains the best place to participate in the mainland’s economy and growth,” Li told AFP.

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