The leader of US-blocked Hong Kong insisted on Wednesday that political stability and business confidence in the city had been restored following the crushing of pro-democracy protests, as he opened a financial summit attended by global bankers including top Wall Street executives.
Hong Kong is hosting a week of high-profile events after years of political unrest and pandemic travel restrictions have tarnished the city’s business-friendly reputation, fueled the drain on talent and undermined its economy.
The marquee event at the Four Seasons hotel was heralded by city leader John Lee as proof that Asia’s previously shuttered financial hub is back in business.
“We were, we are and we will remain one of the world’s leading financial centers. And you can take that to the bank,” Lee told delegates.
Lee, a former police officer and security chief who took office this year, is among Chinese officials blocked by Washington for cracking down on rights in Hong Kong after massive pro-democracy protests. These blacklisted individuals cannot hold accounts with the same banking giants that attended the summit.
Most of the city’s political opposition is either in jail or has fled abroad since the protests.
“Social disruption is clearly in the past, and has given way to stability to growth in business and public confidence in Hong Kong’s future,” Lee said in his summit address.
“Law and order has returned. The worst is behind us,” he added.
Among those who will speak at the summit are Goldman Sachs chief David Solomon, Morgan Stanley CEO James Gorman, Blackrock president Rob Kapito and JP Morgan Chase counterpart Daniel Pinto.
But their presence is not without controversy.
Last week, the leaders of the bipartisan US Congressional Commission on China urged Wall Street executives not to attend, accusing them of “whitewashing human rights violations” and giving political cover to Lee.
The dispute illustrates the limitations facing multinational companies in Hong Kong, which is a lucrative business gateway for China and a flashpoint in increasingly strained relations between Beijing and Western powers.
“Hong Kong’s seamless connection with the mainland gives Hong Kong advantages that no other economy has,” Lee declared in his speech.
– Unsettled economic waters –
The summit comes at a time of economic uncertainty in China under President Xi Jinping.
Xi, who secured a norm-breaking third term last month, has overseen a regulatory crackdown that has clipped the wings of some major Chinese companies and still sticks to a strict zero-Covid strategy.
Hong Kong’s economy saw gross domestic product plunge 4.5 percent in the third quarter of this year, according to preliminary figures released Tuesday.
Its stock market is among the world’s worst performers, down more than 50 percent this year to levels last seen in 2009.
Lee’s opening remarks will be followed by taped interviews with three mainland officials involved in regulation, including Yi Gang, the governor of China’s central bank.
That will be followed by a panel titled “Navigating Through Uncertainty” featuring senior executives from Morgan Stanley, Blackstone, UBS, Goldman Sachs and Bank of China president Liu Jin.
Hong Kong finance chief Paul Chan is also expected to give a speech after he was cleared by health officials to attend the conference after testing positive for Covid-19 last week during a trip abroad.
Lee’s speech did not mention the labyrinthine epidemic rules maintained by both China and, to a lesser extent, Hong Kong.
Although Hong Kong lifted mandatory quarantines in September — a key demand of businesses — it maintains a layer of pandemic restrictions that almost everywhere else has long abandoned.
Foreign arrivals must undergo frequent tests and cannot go to bars and restaurants for their first three days in the city.
Restrictions on various permanent gatherings and masks are mandatory, including outdoors.