Hong Kongers may still be political prisoners, but today they are personally free!
One of the final Covid-crackdown rules, the mask mandate that has remained in place for almost three years, has been scrapped. No longer do I have to wear a mask anywhere I go outside the home -- only to take it off in the highest-risk situations, such as when I sit down to eat.
Hong Kong recovery stocks jumped on the news, and the benchmark Hang Seng Index closed with a 4.2% gain Wednesday. Hong Kong stocks posted a world-leading rally of 54.4% in the two months through January 27, but the optimism had faded to the tune of a double-digit drop in February, as traders realized they were getting ahead of themselves.
Other than very limited exceptions, a mask was required everywhere you went in Hong Kong. At one point, park rangers caught up to hikers in the hills to tell them to put face coverings on. But the exceptions meant it made no sense. Most recently, you had to wear a mask in a public park, but could take it off to exercise or to eat. Hong Kong kept restaurants open essentially throughout the pandemic.
So you might wear a mask in your walk to the gym, breath heavy as you worked out mask-free right next to someone in a sweaty gym, put it back on to walk to work, then take it off again for lunch as you crammed elbow-to-elbow with fellow diners in a crowded Hong Kong restaurant.
It made the least sense because the vast majority of the Hong Kong population has already had Covid. Wearing masks did slow the spread of the disease in its early days. But once the highly-infectious Omicron variant started doing the rounds, masks made very little difference. The disease swiftly ripped through a city that, by some counts, has the world's most-crowded neighborhood in the district of Mong Kok. To date, almost 13,500 Hong Kongers have died from Covid-linked causes, one of the highest per-capita rates in the world, in this city of 7.3 million.
I was out and about early Wednesday morning, pursuing my second career as a personal trainer before settling down later at my reporting desk. The road traffic was unusually heavy, as was the footfall in Victoria Park, a recreational oasis in the heart of the bustling Causeway Bay shopping district. It seems Hong Kongers are keen to make the most of their freedom.
I would say that around 50% of Hong Kongers are still wearing masks. A handful of people may not be aware that the restriction has already been lifted. But the bulk of tech-savvy Hong Kongers will surely have seen the wall-to-wall social-media posts on the topic. So they are wearing their masks out of choice, and an abundance of caution. That's fine, and their choice.
Actually, I might have supported the continuation of a mask ban on, say, public transport. But that kind of restriction has fallen, too. Masks are only now required in healthcare settings.
It was 945 days ago that Hong Kong, having prosecuted people for wearing facemasks during the political protests of 2019, suddenly started telling everyone they should in fact be wearing facemasks. The confusion over ongoing protest court cases against mask wearers initially caused the city's leadership to warn against wearing masks. But as of July 2020, there's been a HK$5,000 (US$643) fine if you're caught out, bare-faced, a penalty that rose to HK$10,000 (US$1,285) if you took your case to court, and lost.
Chinese authorities have introduced some of the most-stringent Covid restrictions, preferring the heavy stick of the law to trusting the populace to act responsibly. They have not done their credibility any good by arguing until they are blue in the face that the regulations are absolutely essential and necessary -- then suddenly scrapping them.
That happened in China on December 8. Chinese President Xi Jinping had argued again and again that a stringent policy to eliminate Covid at every location, as soon as a case appeared, was the right course to pursue. He bragged he would lead the battle to "victory" over the virus. When Omicron proved to spread too quickly for authorities to lock it down, and it became clear "victory" would never be won, public protests burst out in many locations across the country, a rare display of public dissent. Frustration finally boiled over due to the disruption that "Covid roulette" caused, given the uncertainty of movement. Travel to another town or city, and your health code might prevent your return. Or your workplace or residential complex might suddenly lock down without warning, leaving you without work, or food in the fridge.
Hong Kong had just renewed its mask mandate last week, through March 8, the health authorities claiming it was still absolutely necessary. They had said it was necessary to wear masks through flu season, confusingly extending an emergency pandemic measure because of a very ordinary disease.
But Macau, the former Portuguese colony just across the Pearl River Delta, abandoned its mask mandate on Monday. Taiwan abandoned a requirement for students to wear masks in school as of today, one of that self-governed island's last face-covering restrictions. Singapore abandoned a mask requirement on public transport in the middle of February, decreased its disease alert level to the lowest "Green" level, and stood down its emergency-response task force. Hong Kong appears to have copycatted those changes.
Hong Kong's favorite tactic was to claim that every measure was "science-based," without ever producing evidence of said science. The city's equivalent of a mayor, Chief Executive John Lee, had already been very fond of saying that Hong Kong had scrapped "all" its Covid restrictions, even as the mask rule remained in place.
Hong Kong is now attempting a charm offensive to lure back the finance industry, conventions and tourism, even giving away free air tickets to the city. At the height of the pandemic, this tiny territory -- slightly smaller than the city of Los Angeles -- effectively locked its citizenry within it while it operated a punishing 21-day quarantine, barring anyone but residents from returning. The economy shrank 3.5% last year, suffering from the internal restrictions as well as the disruptive effects of zero-Covid across the border in mainland China.
The Hong Kong population fell 0.9% in 2022, the third straight year that the city has lost people. Students and recent graduates have been leaving for better work prospects abroad, while the United Kingdom has offered Hong Kongers a highly popular residence visa that's a path to citizenship. Given the political crackdown in the city, Australia, Canada and the United States have introduced easier immigration rules for Hong Kong residents, particularly if they can demonstrate political persecution.
The pro-democracy protests in 2019 caused the number of visitors to Hong Kong to fall by 14.2%, to 55.9 million for the full year. But those figures fell off a cliff when Covid rules hit, to fewer than 1 million in 2021. The hotel industry was left to survive on quarantine stays, but will now look for a strong return to normal occupancy.
Flagship airline Cathay Pacific (HK:0293) (CPCAY) has seen its shares fall hard since protests started in the spring of 2019. The shares are still 35.2% lower than their pre-protest level. But they have also rallied strongly from their October 2020 lows, up by almost half (47.9%) since then.