The coronavirus and protests have disrupted lives in Hong Kong. Where’s the long-term vision for this battered city?

An op-ed by AmCham President Tara Joseph

Trying to contact French, British or American children who normally live in Hong Kong has become hard work these days. No, they are not at school or playing after-school sports. Many expatriate students, stretching from kindergarten age through to high school, are simply out of town. So are their parents.

“The virus and the ongoing school closure[s] have certainly upended our children’s lives. I am concerned that schools may remain closed even beyond Easter,” said one mum who took her children to the United States in the early days of the breakout.

She is now in Australia so her children can undertake online learning in a similar time zone. But she is hesitant to return to Hong Kong until she feels more confident that the government has made a final decision on when schools will reopen.

Frazzled international families are not alone in finding it hard to plan for the future. Patchy communications and a near obsession with daily administrative tasks has impeded the Hong Kong government from providing a badly needed vision for this badly bruised city. And while the coronavirus is a red alert problem, the international business community also needs to plan well beyond 2020.

For a handful of long and arduous months last year, Hong Kong was a violent and distracted city. Images of tear gas and rioters spread across the internet and giant TV screens globally, putting a heavy dent in our hard-earned reputation as a premier city for international business.

The double whammy of protests and the coronavirus has threatened faith in Hong Kong. Many are bracing for a return of disruptive activity as soon as the health scare subsides.

A recent survey of members of the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong shows that while international business is anxious about the coronavirus, most companies are holding steadfast in Hong Kong to think longer term.

However, they are desperate for a bigger, better and more proactive strategy to restore Hong Kong’s battered image and economy. Executives are eager and anxious for signs of visionary leadership, and more effective communication.

“The Hong Kong government needs to be more proactive and aggressive to reassure the confidence of local Hong Kong people and investors,” said one chamber member.

Among the other comments from our membership: Better public relations and communication to calm people down, and the use of government e-facilities to keep residents up to date.

Some companies have complained that the government lacks a centralised platform to update key stakeholders. For example, when some companies discovered coronavirus cases among their employees, they did not know which government number to call to handle matters with sufficient compliance.

Also, worryingly, the heads of international schools often learned of extended school closures from the Post, rather than from government departments or press conferences which were held in Cantonese.

The lack of authority allows for a wave of worried gossip on WhatsApp chat groups and social media posts. This is how worry gets elevated into panic, which can turn into swift departures.

With schools shut until April 20, children are at home all day, mostly undertaking “online classes”. The extreme change of routine is a brutal challenge for many working parents. Clarity on what will happen after that date, and how the measures will be announced, is crucial.

The school closures may eventually help strangle the spread of the coronavirus, and perhaps be remembered as a prudent early move by the Hong Kong government. As we watch the swell of the virus in other parts of the world, we should feel grateful for Hong Kong’s strong infrastructure and dedicated, professional health care workers.

International school headmasters have felt grateful that they were invited to share their concerns directly with Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, and to finally be given a direct avenue of contact at the Education Bureau.

But, especially in times of crisis and disinformation, swift action is not enough. Open communications and a clear road map for future success are crucial for schools to stay the course through these tumultuous times. Most expatriates have come a long way from their homes to work in Hong Kong.

Once considered a plum posting, it is becoming a bigger and riskier undertaking to live and work in Hong Kong. Many expatriates are drawing their own backup plans and “red line” scenarios. They increasingly discuss other options and what events would trigger them to leave the city they have loved.

While ensuring the comfort and livelihood of Hongkongers is, of course, a top priority, international businesses in this city employ hundreds of thousands of people. The relocation of executives outside this city would have a long and hard impact on this city. Hong Kong needs to compete with other world cities in the long term as a hub for global companies and top international schools are an important key to the city’s strength.

The government also risks undoing a lot of work it has done to build Hong Kong’s international standing, such as tax-efficient policies and a world-class stock exchange When it comes to schooling, the government spent two decades adding a fresh supply of international schools, adding thousands of places to boost a critical shortage.

With so much at risk for Hong Kong, it needs to stay in the race to compete as a top-tier global city. That is with the key pillars of rule of law, tax efficiency and connectivity. But let us not forget liveability and its attraction as a family destination for people from all over the planet.

Proper communication with all stakeholders and a vision for restoring this city beyond financial handouts are a critical part of the picture.

The top level of government needs to start communicating what kind of a city they want Hong Kong to be five years from now. A strong vision could help cut through the pervading gloom and assure the international business community that this city can once again thrive.

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