Cyclone, absences threaten to dull Hong Kong finance meeting

HONG KONG (AP) — A tropical storm and absences of VIP guests have cast a shadow over a financial conference meant to help Hong Kong restore its image as a financial hub and destination for business travel.

The first major conference since the city lifted COVID-19 quarantine restrictions was due to begin Wednesday. But at least four top executives from institutions including the CEOs of Citigroup and Barclays, who had been expected to attend the Global Financial Leaders’ Investment Summit, were dropping out.

The Hong Kong Observatory forecast that tropical storm Nalgae would likely bring torrential rains as it passes 200 kilometers (120 miles) to the southwest, in further bad news for organizers of the meeting.

At least four top finance executives initially slated to attend the conference this week have dropped out. They include Blackstone Inc. President Jonathan Gray and Citigroup Inc.’s CEO Jane Fraser, who will no longer attend the conference after contracting COVID-19. The CEO of Barclays, C.S. Venkatakrishnan, also scrapped plans to go. Gray was slated to speak in a panel on global uncertainty, while Fraser was supposed to discuss sustainable finance.

On Tuesday, Capital Group Cos.’ CEO Timothy Armour became the latest chief executive to withdraw from the conference, for health reasons.

The city’s T3 strong wind signal was in force Tuesday, with the possibility a higher signal might be raised, depending on the storm. Typically, most businesses close and events are postponed if a T8 strong wind signal is raised. But the Hong Kong Monetary Authority, organizer of the summit, said it would go ahead even if the T8 signal is hoisted.

The main events of the conference take place Wednesday.

Authorities have pulled out all the stops for the gathering, tailoring restrictions for participants such as allowing them to dine in at specific restaurants, even as most other inbound travelers are banned from doing so for three days after they arrive in the city.

Other restrictions include allowing attendees who test positive for COVID-19 to leave by chartered flights if they want to, instead of having to be isolated for at least seven days in Hong Kong.

Hong Kong leader John Lee said during a news conference Tuesday that it was to be a “vibrant” week for Hong Kong.

When asked if the restrictions designed for conference participants constituted a “double standard,” Lee said different plans are formulated to ensure activities can go ahead.

“It’s on these principles that we put in place certain measures so that some major events can go ahead in Hong Kong,” he said.

Illustrating the impatience in Hong Kong for a reopening on the neighboring Chinese mainland, the city’s benchmark Hang Seng index jumped 5.2% on Tuesday following unconfirmed rumors that China may be beginning to plan to dismantle its stringent COVID-19 controls, which involve mass testing and sometimes lock-downs of entire neighborhoods or cities.

A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, Zhao Lijian, told reporters he was “not aware of what you just mentioned” when asked about the rumor.

Some U.S. lawmakers have urged American companies not to participate in the meeting given tensions with China over trade and human rights. The U.S. has been vocal about a crackdown on dissent in Hong Kong after the semi-autonomous territory implemented its National Security Law.

Sen. Jeff Merkley and Rep. Jim McGovern, who chair the Congressional Executive Commission on China, urged financial executives to reconsider their decision to attend the Hong Kong event.

“Their presence only serves to legitimize the swift dismantling of Hong Kong’s autonomy, free press, and the rule of law by Hong Kong authorities acting along with the Chinese Communist Party,” they said in a statement.

After loosening its once strict pandemic precautions, Hong Kong is trying to get back on track as a destination for all kinds of tourism.

The former British colony is due to hold the Hong Kong Sevens rugby tournament from Nov. 4-6, for the first since the pandemic began. The city’s is also holding a five-day “FinTech Week,” with hundreds of exhibitors and speakers and an expected total turnout of thousands.

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