I have finally made it back to Asia for the first time since the Covid outbreak. I was supposed to travel to Singapore in mid-November but was hit by the virus a week before my long-scheduled departure. That effectively cleared the decks for this second, successful attempt. A few early impressions follow.
First of all, notwithstanding all the chatter over the big reopening, the Hong Kong International Airport is still virtually empty. The number of scheduled nonstop flights from New York remains sharply reduced. I wanted to return on Saturday, only to be told that Cathay Pacific, one of my favorite airlines, now has no nonstop flights back to JFK on Saturdays. Going through Hong Kong immigration mid-Tuesday afternoon took less than one minute — far shorter than when I came back at the end of the SARS epidemic in mid-2003 and well below pre-Covid wait times of 30 to 45 minutes.
Second, is how I found the city. Physically, it looks the same. While traffic and pedestrian congestion is sharply reduced, there is still plenty of new construction activity and the city’s impeccable infrastructure once again stood in sharp contrast to the terrible experience I had on the roads to JFK in New York. Notwithstanding America’s great infrastructure stimulus package that was enacted a couple of years ago, the gap, if anything, has grown larger.
Third, is the mood of the people. An unmistakable air of depression hung in the air. With the PRC having tightened the noose on any semblance of independent governance, questions of the “future of Hong Kong” came up at every meeting I spoke at — with business leaders, investors, corporates, academics, think tanks, and old friends. They fear, as do I, that Hong is now quickly on its way to becoming just another large Chinese city. They took the point that I made in trying to respond to their concerns – that the ultimate verdict is in their hands as talented professionals, drawing on their institutional, rule-of law- based experience, to distinguish themselves from their Chinese counterparts. But the weight of the struggle was unmistakable, as was the body language of grim resignation.
Finally, there was a silver lining for me to take away from our discussions about the worrisome escalation of the US-China conflict. Unsurprisingly, the Hong Kong consensus is that it is all America’s fault – from Trump to Biden, they argue it has only gotten worse. On that point, I agree. Chapter 7 of Accidental Conflict develops that point in detail. But I stress in response that the key message of the book is that this is a relationship problem, where both partners have a shared culpability in sparking conflict. Just as Hong Kongers want to blame the US for this sad state of affairs, the American impression of China — and now sadly, by inference the US impression of Hong Kong — is more toxic than at any point in my lifetime. Both sides are to blame.
The silver lining is the enthusiastic response I am getting to my three-point plan for conflict resolution — the trust building agenda, the growth opportunities of a bilateral investment treaty, and the US-China Secretariat as a new architecture of permanent engagement. There is plenty of quibbling over some of the details of the plan, but there is a strong belief that something needs to be done urgently— before it is too late, before the inevitable accident. I couldn’t agree more. This first trip back to Asia in three years has reinforced my commitment to spread the word.
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