Hong Kong to ‘trawl world for talent’ in reboot attempt

Hong Kong’s new leader unveiled plans to resuscitate the business hub’s fortunes on Wednesday, hoping to lure international expertise back to a city that has suffered an exodus of talent and is mired in a deep downturn.

John Lee, a Beijing-anointed former security chief, gave a debut policy speech that focused heavily on reviving the economy and maintaining security while recognizing that tens of thousands of people had left a city that serves as a gateway to China.

“Over the past two years, the local workforce shrank by about 140,000,” he said. “Apart from actively nurturing and retaining local talent, the government will proactively trawl the world for talent.”

Hong Kong has undergone its most tumultuous period since the city’s 1997 handover to China.

Huge and sometimes violent democracy protests three years ago were followed by a sweeping crackdown on dissent and some of the world’s strictest coronavirus pandemic rules, many of which remained in place long after rival hubs were reopening.

The city, which only scrapped mandatory quarantine for international arrivals last month, is set to end the year in full-blown recession and has seen its fiscal deficit soar.

The border with the Chinese mainland remains all but closed because of Beijing’s strict zero-Covid rules.

Lee’s speech offered up his blueprint to reverse the downturn and reboot the city as an attractive international hub.

Among the measures rolled out were HK$30 billion ($3.8 billion) for a new investment fund to attract overseas businesses and make it easier to hire foreigners in 13 key professions.

The city will also give preferential treatment for “top talent”, described as people who earn HK$2.5 million or more annually and graduates from the top 100 universities around the world who have relevant working experience.

Overseas talent who paid extra taxes when buying property in Hong Kong can receive a refund when they become a permanent resident, a status available after living in the city for seven years, Lee added.

‘Stability is the prerequisite’

Hong Kong is gradually moving away from its version of China’s zero-Covid policy after nearly three years, which failed to keep out the virus and has left the city internationally cut off.

Experts and business groups had long warned that heavy-handed coronavirus policies were driving away foreign business and making it harder to attract and retain talent

Authorities have axed the unpopular hotel quarantine for incoming travelers and loosened some social distancing rules.

But Hong Kong’s pace of reopening still lags behind regional rivals like Singapore — which has gone on a charm offensive to lure international talent and has bounced back as a global transport hub.

Aside from the pandemic, many residents — especially locals — have cited the ongoing political crackdown as a primary reason for leaving, with many workplaces and schools reshaped by pro-Beijing ideology.

Beijing imposed a sweeping national security law on Hong Kong in 2020 after democracy protests the year before, transforming the city’s once outspoken vibe and eradicating most dissent.

Most prominent local democracy activists either are in jail, are awaiting trial, or have fled overseas.

City leader Lee, who took office in July, is a former security chief who oversaw the crackdown and is among a list of officials sanctioned by the United States.

Lee stressed that the government will press ahead with further national security legislation and possible new rules on “false information”.

“The development of Hong Kong allows no delay. Social stability is the prerequisite for our development, and we have to get rid of any interference,” Lee said.

A survey by the Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute found that 60 percent of pro-democracy camp supporters were dissatisfied with Lee’s policy direction in his first 100 days in office.

Among centrists and Beijing supporters, 42 percent said they were satisfied, according to PORI.

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