By: Tommy Walker
Hong Kong has faced another year of gloom as the city struggles to overcome its pandemic and political woes.
Self-proclaimed as "Asia's World City," the Chinese territory has effectively been globally isolated for three years because of the pandemic, while facing a record population decline and a continued crackdown under the Beijing-imposed national security law.
Three-and-a-half years on, the effects of Hong Kong's 2019 pro-democracy protests remain palpable. Authorities have arrested hundreds for violating the draconian National Security Law passed in response to the political uprising, with at least 27 people jailed for violating the law in 2022 alone.
Some were convicted of sedition offenses, including publishers of children's books and student activists. Many other pro-democracy activists remain in pre-trial detention.
One of those is Jimmy Lai, the founder of the now-defunct newspaper Apple Daily, who has been in custody since December 2020 on charges including "foreign collusion." If convicted, he could face life imprisonment.
Lai's trial was set to commence this month but was postponed until 2023 as Beijing decides whether a foreign lawyer can represent Lai.
Iris Hsu, China representative at the media watchdog Committee to Protect Journalists, said Lai's upcoming trial will be "one to watch," noting it "will be indicative of Hong Kong's press environment."
Dennis Kwok, a former pro-democracy lawmaker in Hong Kong, said the city is being further integrated with mainland China.
"I think [new laws restricting media freedom] will be passed next year, 2023, and they are doing some major changes to all these laws — fake news, internet control, foreign organizations, foreign espionage — all those laws will be enacted sometime in 2023 and will be interesting to see how far some these will go," Kwok, a senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School, told VOA. "I think there will be further changes to integrate Hong Kong into the mainland and into the Greater Bay area."
Kwok said most of Hong Kong's citizens have lost interest in pushing for democratic rights amid the political crackdown.
"People don't read the news and don't really care about the elections. There is about 20% or 30% of people who go out and vote, but the majority of people simply don't care," he said. "Most of the time people will not have the means to voice the oppositions, because elections have been hollowed out and people don't really care."
Hong Kong has seen a record decrease in its population with more than 113,000 residents departing the city in the past year, the biggest drop since record-keeping began more than 60 years ago, according to Hong Kong's Census and Statistics Department.
Analysts have told VOA that hundreds of thousands of Hong Kongers are disillusioned with life in the city, particularly because of the political unrest and restrictions due to the pandemic.
Kwok anticipates that population decline will continue into the new year.
"There is obviously an exodus of Hong Kong people, going to the U.K., Canada, Australia and U.S. — this is similar to what happened in the 1990s, but this time there is a great sense of urgency because the Hong Kong people authoritarianism as practiced in China is formally in Hong Kong," Kwok said. "I think it will keep happening, it's still happening."
The city largely abandoned key requirements of Beijing's "zero-COVID" strategy amid an outbreak of the highly transmissible omicron variant in February, when more than 26,000 cases were recorded in one day.
But optimism rose as Hong Kong gradually reopened for international arrivals earlier this year, dropping quarantine requirements and removing nearly all remaining health measures for visitors.
Respiratory disease expert Dr. Leung Chi-Chiu said keeping mask mandates in place at least until after early 2023 is vital.
"The mask mandate helps to ensure mass masking, which greatly enhances the protection versus cross transmission in aggregate settings, both indoors and outdoors," he told VOA. "[It is] likely need[ed] to maintain the mask mandate [until] after this winter."
But Hong Kong has still struggled to attract overseas visitors. Only 330,000 arrivals have entered the territory through October, according to a spokesman for the Hong Kong Tourism Board.
Gary Bowerman, a travel analyst based in Kuala Lumpur, forecasts increased tourism in the coming year.
"Hong Kong relies heavily on tourism from mainland China — which accounted for 78% of its visitors in 2018, so it would need China to reopen the border for any significant uplift to occur," he said.
"[Hong Kong-based airline] Cathay Pacific is running at less than 25% of its pre-pandemic capacity at the moment, and only aims to reach 70% by the end of 2023 and a fully capacity return by end of 2024," he added. (KB/VOA)