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Biased Western narratives on Hong Kong will crumble if only foreigners would come here

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Hong Kong has a problem at the moment attracting foreigners to our city, whether as tourists, professionals, business executives, entrepreneurs or just young people getting to see the world.

This is an important issue: after all, we style ourselves as “ Asia’s World City”, a cosmopolitan society where East meets West. At the moment some of the flavour is missing, and Hong Kong risks losing what distinguishes it from other major cities in the region, or even within China.
The situation is most starkly illustrated by the response to the government’s various schemes to attract talent. Mainlanders account for about 90 per cent of the successful applicants this year. As regards quality and skills levels, this is not a problem as the criteria ensure we are getting some of the best, but the composition is skewed.
It is similar with tourism. While the total numbers are starting to recover, growth has been strongest in the mainland market while long-haul tourism has been slow to grow back, partly because of a lack of flights.

So what are the causes, and what can be done to address the situation? Alas, the causes are many and varied, and not all can be tackled head-on. One major factor was our government’s draconian response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Another was the aftermath of the social disturbances in the second half of 2019. The overwhelming majority of protesters were peaceful, and their proclaimed causes – such as greater democracy – were bound to be favourably received in the international media. But then the protests were hijacked by a hard-core group of black-shirted militants prepared to indulge in violence and vandalism.

At this point several things went wrong simultaneously. Ordinary protesters were forced to withdraw support from the more violent sectors; the government continued to paint all protesters with the same brush; the international media proved incapable of recognising the nuances of the situation, prepared to overlook attacks on police officers or bystanders and damage to public property.

The result has been a public relations fiasco. The fact is we have a very negative image in overseas markets.

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Underlying all these developments have been the actions of some Western governments, principally the United States and Britain, to undermine and restrain China. Hong Kong is a useful stick with which to beat the whole nation. Moves by Washington on the economic and trade fronts have been well-publicised. More subtle have been other moves.

For example, the US State Department’s official website has advice to American travellers in four tiers ranging from “do not travel” to “exercise normal precautions”. Mainland China is in Category 3, or “reconsider travel”, while Hong Kong is in Category 2, or “ exercise increased caution”, because of “arbitrary enforcement of local laws”. Such statements do carry weight with Americans and other potential Western visitors.
In similar vein comes the UK’s mission to save the oppressed local citizenry with every form of assistance short of the one thing – an immediate British passport – which would actually help.

It is no good hiding behind these hardships or injustices. Complaining about them just sounds like making excuses. We have to deal with the situation as it is.

In a recent radio discussion programme, European Chamber of Commerce chairman Inaki Amate had some useful observations and suggestions. He commented on two issues of concern to expats where Hong Kong scores badly: the fact that many flats here are ridiculously small and those of reasonable size are absurdly expensive. He also highlighted the difficulties in finding suitable kindergarten places at reasonable prices.
But he also had a positive message. In spite of all these difficulties, Hong Kong is still a good place to live and work, especially for expats. For example, Chinese language ability is desirable but not mandatory. It is perfectly possible to enjoy a career here working in English.
Inaki Amate, chair of the European Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong. Photo: Handout
Moreover, the best marketing tool for Hong Kong is the people who live here and the community we have built. The best way of correcting the global image of Hong Kong would be to get people to come here so they can see for themselves the actual situation.

I think Amate is on to something here. The more people we can persuade to visit, even if only for a short time, the better. Even if they don’t immediately decide to stay, the message they will carry back to their home countries of an orderly city with exceptional public transport and outstanding scenery will start to undermine the negative narrative.

In particular, we should take a closer look at schemes for attracting younger visitors, such as six-month work visas on arrival, extendable if they get a job, and subsidised hostel places. Hong Kong is a great product. We should have confidence that it can sell itself if we can get people here to look.

Mike Rowse is the CEO of Treloar Enterprises

Article was originally published from here

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