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Hong Kong ‘yellow’ businesses see persecution in COVID crackdown | Business and Economy

Hong Kong 'yellow' businesses see persecution in COVID crackdown |  Business and Economy
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Hong Kong, China- In Hong Kong’s bustling Mong Kok district recently, customers streamed in and out of bars and restaurants during a busy summer weekend.

But at Shinko, a popular Japanese izakaya restaurant, there weren’t any customers in sight.

The restaurant was forced to suspend evening services for 14 days after a customer failed to produce a valid vaccination record during a police raid in mid-July.

While other restaurants have received similar sanctions under Hong Kong’s pandemic rules, including restrictive measures long abandoned elsewhere, Shinko’s owners are convinced they have received disproportionate scrutiny from authorities due to their political beliefs. .

“Hong Kong’s business environment makes me feel powerless, makes me wonder if the authorities want to prevent us from doing business in Hong Kong,” Hei, one of the restaurant’s co-owners, told Al Jazeera.

Shinko is among the Hong Kong companies that supported the 2019 mass pro-democracy protests, which began as peaceful demonstrations against plans to allow extraditions to mainland China before morphing into a broader movement that saw Violent clashes between protesters and police.

Businesses like Shinko’s are known locally as part of the “yellow economy”; yellow is the color associated with pro-democracy sentiment in the Chinese-ruled city.

Interior of Shinko, a Japanese-style izakaya.
Shinko, a Japanese izakaya, was forced to stop overnight dinner services for 14 days after a customer failed to produce a valid vaccination record during a police raid. [Courtesy of Lok-kei Sum]

Once an integral part of the political landscape, Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement has been largely muted since Beijing imposed a draconian national security law on the territory in 2020.

Despite China’s promises to leave intact the rights and freedoms of the former British colony after its return to Chinese rule, most of the movement’s leaders have been arrested, disqualified from office, or forced into exile. The media and civil society, once widely regarded as the freest in the region, are increasingly toeing the government line.

For “yellow” businesses, many of which became known for displaying pro-democracy paraphernalia during the 2019 protests, the city’s new reality means navigating scrutiny from Beijing acolytes. They include the media, which frequently accuse establishments of defying government COVID-19 restrictions and “spreading separatism” by displaying protest slogans and banners.

Hei, who asked not to use his full name, said his business has strictly adhered to the government’s COVID-19 restrictions to avoid complications, in part because he expects greater scrutiny, even going so far as to hire additional staff to check health records. vaccination of clients.

But Hei said his restaurant still gets more attention than others in his neighborhood, with the establishment subject to five pandemic-related inspections since July alone.

Under Hong Kong’s strict pandemic rules designed to align with mainland China’s “zero COVID” strategy, customers who break the law can face a fine of HK$5,000 ($637), while the establishment in question can see its opening hours restricted for 14 days. Customers entering bars must also present a negative COVID-19 test from the last 24 hours, and owners must comply with technical requirements for ventilation and air purification.

Hei said some “yellow” business owners try to keep a low profile on social media to avoid drawing the attention of authorities.

“But I’ve come to realize that it’s not helpful, no matter how low-key you are, if they need to handle you, they will come,” he said.

Shinko
Shinko owner says Hong Kong business environment has left her feeling ‘helpless’ [Courtesy of Lok-kei Sum]

Both the Hong Kong Police and the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department (FEHD) carry out inspections to check compliance with COVID-19 restrictions.

From March 2020 to August 2022, the police conducted more than 52,000 inspections, resulting in the issuance of 890 reminders, 3,258 fines, and 638 prosecutions. The FEHD said it has carried out more than 605,000 inspections, resulting in 2,432 prosecutions. It also said that 1,257 caterers have faced “waiting time” sanctions.

When asked what criteria are used to select a business for inspection, police said details of its operations “should not be disclosed” but that officers will act “based on the actual circumstances” and in accordance with the law.

“The sole objective of police operations is to call on the public to strictly follow the relevant regulations in order to reduce the risks of spreading [the] virus,” a police spokesman said.

Despite his measures, Shinko was sanctioned after a raid in mid-July and had to suspend dine-in services after 6:00 p.m. Hei said his staff checked customers’ vaccination records upon entering, but a customer did not present a valid QR code when questioned by police.

The suspension of dine-in services cut Shinko’s profits in half, resulting in a six-figure loss. There are currently no means for companies to appeal the sanctions against them.

While the official guidelines require facilities to verify clients’ immunization records prior to admission, they do not stipulate whether owners are expected to verify the authenticity of such records.

“If an operator has exercised due diligence by scanning a customer’s QR code that was found to be fraudulent, they will be charged HK$5,000. [$637] a fixed penalty notice would be issued to the customer,” a FEHD spokesperson said.

Chickeduck founder Herbert Chow
Chickeduck founder Herbert Chow left Hong Kong in May after police raided one of his stores. [File: Tyrone Siu/Reuters]

Hei said that in the future, his staff may have to check people’s ID cards to match their names to their vaccination records, even though many chain restaurants get by simply asking customers to scan your own immunization pass upon entry.

Some entrepreneurs have chosen to close shop and move abroad. Herbert Chow, a pro-democracy businessman who owns the Chickeeduck clothing and retail chain, left Hong Kong in May after police raided a shop displaying a protest slogan.

In August, Chickeduck, which has been repeatedly singled out as a national security threat by pro-Beijing media, announced that all of its stores will close after leases run out.

Despite promising to return to Hong Kong, Chow later announced on social media that he plans to resume his career in the UK.

Others have sought a fresh start in nearby Taiwan, including Teddy Ng, 37, who owns an online retail and catering business in Hong Kong.

In July, Ng announced that his restaurant of almost 10 years will close after its lease expires in September. Her online retail website, which along with her restaurant employs 25 people, will also be closed.

While Ng said he’s proud the restaurant survived the pandemic, he’s disappointed with government policies that pushed him away.

“These COVID restrictions interfere with our daily operations, but are they effective?” Ng told Al Jazeera, adding that Hong Kong had not kept up with the global trend of living with COVID-19.

While Hong Kong earlier this month introduced a mainland-style health code for entering establishments such as bars and restaurants, countries including the UK, France and New Zealand have long since ruled out vaccination passes. Despite its nickname as “Asia’s World City,” Hong Kong is among a handful of jurisdictions that still require arrivals to undergo hotel quarantine.

While Ng’s move to Taiwan meant giving up a decade of business ties and his customer base in Hong Kong, he finds the new environment far less stressful and hopes to open a restaurant in Taipei in October.

Like Shinko, Ng’s restaurant in Hong Kong was also targeted by pro-government media and subjected to frequent inspections. He said that Hong Kong is no longer truly a free market due to political sensitivities and COVID-19 restrictions in the city.

“That’s why we’re willing to give up all these things and start fresh in a new place,” Ng said.

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