Hong Kong is stuck between being open to China and closed to the world, or open to the world and closed to China

August 17, 2021, 10:54 AM UTC

In June, Hong Kong began loosening pandemic travel restrictions that, over the past 18 months, have transformed it from “Asia’s World City” to one of the most closed-off places on the planet. Now, the global financial hub is once again sealing its borders.

On Monday, the city increased the mandatory quarantine on Hong Kong residents returning from 16 countries, including the U.S., to 21 days. On Tuesday, the city reversed course on a scheme that allowed residents to spend only seven days in quarantine if they could prove they were fully vaccinated and conducted a test to show that the vaccine provided enough antibodies to fight off infection. This means that all Hong Kong residents—except for those coming from mainland China, Macau, Taiwan, or New Zealand—will have to spend at least 14 days in quarantine upon arrival regardless of vaccination status.

“I do understand that people are annoyed [by the new restrictions],” Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s Chief Executive, said in a press conference on Tuesday. “But in order to err on the side of caution, and to prevent the spread of the disease, we have to [impose restrictions]…Everything we are doing is to protect Hong Kong from another major outbreak.”

Hong Kong’s strict new quarantine rules will effectively close the city off from international travel for the foreseeable future at the same time that other major financial centers like New York, London, and Singapore have been pursuing reopening plans even amid the rise of the highly transmissible Delta variant. But Hong Kong’s strict new rules may help stem Delta-driven outbreaks and bring the city closer to opening quarantine-free travel with mainland China—that is, if China’s government ever chooses to accept travelers from Hong Kong.

Hong Kong’s new rules

Hong Kong has banned all noncitizens and nonresidents since the spring of 2020. For the most part, citizens and residents could enter the city after serving 14- to 21-day quarantines.

Hong Kong’s tight border controls proved effective in keeping the virus at bay, and the city has registered 212 deaths since the beginning of the pandemic, compared with over 33,000 deaths in New York City and 15,000 deaths in London.

Amid its COVID-19 vaccine rollout, in June Hong Kong announced that it would reduce hotel quarantine periods to seven days for fully vaccinated travelers, signaling that the city might have been on the way to reopening as an international travel hub.

But then came the Delta variant.

In recent weeks, Hong Kong has registered dozens of Delta-variant infections among travelers in its quarantine hotels, even as the city has not registered its own COVID-19 outbreak in months.

Still, one case was particularly concerning to authorities.

On Aug. 12, a fully vaccinated, 38-year-old female tested positive for the Delta variant of COVID-19 on her 12th day back in Hong Kong after a trip to the U.S. and a seven-day stay in a Hong Kong quarantine hotel. The case, in addition to a surge in Delta-driven waves of infections worldwide, prompted Hong Kong public health experts and local politicians over the weekend to call for Hong Kong to increase quarantine requirements for vaccinated travelers.

Authorities acted swiftly. On Monday, Hong Kong declared the U.S., France, and 14 other countries as high-risk for COVID-19, meaning that Hong Kong travelers from a total of 25 countries would now have to stay in 21-day mandatory hotel quarantines regardless of vaccination status. This was followed by the city’s Tuesday announcement that the vast majority of vaccinated residents returning to the city from the rest of the world should serve 14-day hotel quarantines before entering the city.

Nicholas Thomas, a professor of health governance at the City University of Hong Kong, says that such strict measures may be necessary to protect Hong Kong citizens from a new outbreak, especially owing to the fact that much of the city remains vulnerable to infection.

Hong Kong’s vaccination campaign has improved in recent months after a sluggish start, but 50% of Hong Kong residents remain completely unvaccinated. Only 36% of people over the age of 60 have gotten one dose, according to government data, which means that a Delta outbreak could prove deadly in Hong Kong.

“The Hong Kong government needs to get more people vaccinated, and then also be looking at booster shots before they can really start to relax their guard,” he says.

COVID-zero

Hong Kong’s new quarantine rules put the city’s COVID-19 response more in line with mainland China’s policies.

Mainland China is currently deploying measures like strict lockdowns while battling its own Delta-driven COVID-19 outbreaks, even as it has provided enough vaccine doses to inoculate two-thirds of its population.

This week, Zhang Wenhong, one of China’s most prominent infectious disease experts, is battling a plagiarism allegation that could tar his professional reputation after he was criticized online and by state media outlets for suggesting that China should deviate from its COVID-zero approach and learn to live with the virus.

His case suggests that China has no desire to reopen its borders anytime soon, says Thomas. And if Hong Kong wants to reopen to the mainland, it may have to abide by a similar zero-tolerance approach to COVID-19.

“Reopening with China is the key political and economic priority for the government,” says Thomas. “And Hong Kong has to be considered a safe place before the borders can reopen with China.”

Ben Cowling, an epidemiologist at Hong Kong University, says he suspects that Hong Kong citizens and residents may be split between a COVID-zero approach and opening up only with the mainland and a “living with COVID” approach and aiming toward quarantine-free travel with the rest of the world.

But hoping that mainland China will reopen its borders may ultimately leave Hong Kong effectively sealed off from the rest of the world for the foreseeable future.

“I’m most concerned that we may end up with neither of these in the next 12 months,” Cowling says.

This story has been updated to include Hong Kong’s new quarantine rules formally announced late Tuesday evening.

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