By Anne Marie Roantree
DAVOS, Switzerland (Reuters) – With dim sum, cocktails and gold chocolate coins, Hong Kong wrapped up its Davos charm offensive confident the financial hub is back on track, even as officials fly home to tackle a deadly flu-like virus.
Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam arrives back to Hong Kong on Saturday, the first day of the Year of the Rat, to face with what could be a perfect storm – an outbreak of coronavirus, lingering protests and an economic downturn.
Wearing a dress and pink jacket, Lam appeared unfazed as she mingled with some of the 200 business and political leaders on the Hong Kong Night of her trip, which her deputy Matthew Cheung described as a “very important diplomatic visit”.
Flanked by her commerce secretary Edward Yau, Lam listened as HKEX chairwoman Laura Cha reinforced a message that “Team HK” delivered to A-list global investors, corporate and political leaders at the World Economic Forum this week.
“Last year we had experienced one of the global, big black swans that captured world attention,” Cha said, referring to anti-government protests that plunged the Chinese-ruled city into its biggest crisis in decades.
“Every time we came out of a crisis … we became stronger. We are resilient and we will come out of the current one as well,” she said. “Our message tonight is clear. Hong Kong is open for business.”
Cha’s message was echoed by Hong Kong officials including commerce secretary Yau, HKEX chief executive Charles Li and Beijing-backed Lam, whose approval rate is around 14%, the lowest of any post-colonial Hong Kong leader.
As the delegation spoke in a conference room decorated with red lanterns at the Ameron Hotel in the Swiss mountain resort, officials in Hong Kong were scrambling to contain the spread of a coronavirus that threatens to inflict even more pain.
There are two confirmed cases of the virus in Hong Kong, where events have been canceled and authorities are considering extending school holidays to contain the infection, which has killed 26 people in mainland China.
The rapid spread of coronavirus has rattled global markets and prompted travel warnings, with authorities concerned it could spread rapidly as hundreds of millions of Chinese travel to be with relatives over the Lunar New Year.
Some social media posts slammed Lam for going to Davos amid the health crisis, with one reading: “Clearly going to Davos to promote herself is more important than staying in Hong Kong to fight #WuhanCoronavirus.”
The protesters are now also calling for a ban on all mainland Chinese travelers into Hong Kong.
Lam acknowledged in Davos that the rapid flow of people across the border with mainland China made Hong Kong vulnerable, although the government has not yet implemented controls.
She said on Thursday in Davos that Hong Kong had learned valuable lessons from an outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), which killed nearly 300 people in the former British colony in 2003.
“I am cautiously confident that the system we have built up over these years and well tested over these years, will take us out of this current problem,” Lam said.
In Hong Kong, the Hospital Authority Employees Alliance said incompetent handling by the government was responsible for the confirmed cases in the city and slammed authorities for not implementing border controls.
(Reporting by Anne Marie Roantree; Editing by Alexander Smith)