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After pandemic barriers, can Hong Kong recover as a global metropolis?

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Luxury storefronts have been replaced with pop-up shops selling masks. Entire floors of skyscrapers are deserted. Streets that were once crowded with locals and visitors jostling for space are quiet.

This is “Asia’s World City,” Hong Kong’s self-proclaimed title, after more than two years under some of the world’s toughest pandemic rules. The city now wants to regain this cosmopolitan status by taking its biggest step towards housing COVID-19: Abolishing a crushing quarantine mandate that at one point required 21 days in a particular hotel, and easing restrictions on the global gatherings that have given it its reputation as an international metropolis.

But uncertainty about the new approach, which still prohibits visitors from visiting places deemed high-risk — such as restaurants, bars and gyms — during the first three days in the city — and many industry leaders say the changes aren’t enough to address Hong Kong to pull out of an economic recession and restore his once boisterous social life.

There are deeper concerns too. The fact that Hong Kong only began to deviate from China’s “zero-COVID” policy after Beijing gave its blessing has raised concerns about the city’s broader loss of autonomy. Even before the pandemic, the former British colony was irreversibly changing after months of city-wide pro-democracy protests. Beijing then unleashed a devastating crackdown that shut down or ousted some of the people and things that made Hong Kong unique compared to the rest of China: a politically boisterous, irreverent, semi-autonomous city.

“It’s being blown to pieces for Hong Kong’s international credibility,” said David Webb, a longtime Hong Kong corporate governance activist. As the city struggled to contain a COVID outbreak earlier this year, its leaders fumbled. They have vacillated between insisting on increasingly restrictive policies that reflected China’s own draconian approach, and retreating, panicking residents and triggering an exodus of mostly foreigners.

Locals at Wanchai Market on Queen’s Road East in Hong Kong June 12, 2022. Officials say the city is recovering, but even before 2020 Chinese control changed Hong Kong’s character and displaced people. (Sergei Ponomarev/The New York Times)

“What happens the next time there’s a health threat?” Webb asked. “You have done permanent damage to our reputation for autonomy in such matters.”

Under John Lee, a former police officer who became the city’s chief executive in July, Hong Kong has eased restrictions faster than at any time in the pandemic. He has reassured residents that the city will continue to move in this direction, while emphasizing the need to keep people safe from future outbreaks as well.

Other politicians have adopted a similar tone.

“We didn’t lose the title; you could say it’s taken off a bit,” said Tommy Cheung, a Legislative Councilor who represents the hospitality industry and is an adviser to Lee. “We have more people leaving than coming, but that’s happening all over the world. That does not mean that we are no longer a global city.”

Despite the positive development, the damage in recent years has been devastating. After decades in Hong Kong, many multinational companies have relocated their headquarters and employees to less restrictive places like Singapore and Seoul in South Korea. International teachers, foreign athletes and many of Hong Kong’s own professional elite have left. For many, the move is permanent, but for some, COVID was just the last concern.

“In a way, Hong Kong is just another big city in China now,” said Meredith Haskins, a former teacher at Hong Kong International School who retired in June. Teachers have gone into government quarantine amid ongoing school disruptions and fears over possible mass testing and family splits. A long stretch of mandatory 21-day hotel quarantine for many arrivals and multiple laps social distancing Measures have burdened the families.

But the changing political atmosphere of the city has also cast its shadow. Curriculum guidelines issued by the government last year emphasize loyalty to mainland China, its leaders and its coercive methods, and many fear it is only a matter of time before the new national security law negatively impacts curricula at international schools. Schools are struggling to fill vacancies.

Strict COVID rules have also made it difficult for foreign companies to persuade employees not to leave Hong Kong. Companies complain that even with the relaxed rules, there are still travel obstacles for new hires from abroad and conference visitors.

Whether Hong Kong can once again become an attractive city for foreign companies “would require a massive effort to rebuild Hong Kong’s global image,” said Frederik Gollob, chair of the European Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong.

Financial professionals are even more explicit. In order to become competitive again, Hong Kong needs to get back on a par with other international financial centers like London, New York and Singapore.

“It’s up to the government to dissuade the community from being fixated on COVID; Returning to normal is key,” said Sally Wong, CEO of the Hong Kong Investment Funds Association, which represents major global investment firms like BlackRock. In a recent survey conducted by the group, more than a third of investment firms said they have relocated some or all of their regional and global executives from Hong Kong.

The exodus has hurt Hong Kong’s economy and workforce, which has shrunk to a decade low. The city’s finance minister warned this month that Hong Kong is likely to end the year in recession.

Parts of pre-COVID Hong Kong will likely never return.

Media outlets, including The New York Times, and nongovernmental organizations began moving staff to other Asian cities like Seoul and Tokyo in 2020 amid uncertainty following Beijing’s introduction of sweeping new national security law.

Much of Hong Kong’s once vibrant civil society is unlikely to return. Some industries that depend on the city’s open border are cautiously optimistic but unsure the easing of COVID restrictions will go far enough.

An early test will be the Hong Kong Sevens rugby tournament, one of the city’s most prominent sporting events, which will be held in November for the first time since the pandemic began.

Advance tickets are down 30% from 2019 as international corporate sponsors express uncertainty about the event, Hong Kong Rugby Union CEO Robbie McRobbie said. Overseas viewers can only participate once they have passed a three-day health screening.

“I’m not sure at this point whether we’ll be able to put up the sold-out signs,” McRobbie said. There is also confusion over whether the 350 athletes, coaches, referees and medical support teams will have to remain in a closed circuit, confined to their hotel and the stadium, for the first three days.

The main beneficiaries of the quarantine changes so far have been tour operators. “It’s a very positive direction,” said Moon Yau, deputy general manager of Sunflower Travel Services, which operates tours to Japan, Europe and Mainland China. He has received more than 300 travel requests a day since Friday, when authorities announced the rule change, he said. He added that for now they were mostly residents taking their first holiday abroad in almost three years.

For others, the effects are more mixed. In the first weekend after the announced changes, revenue at Black Sheep Restaurants’ nearly 40 restaurants across the city fell, said Syed Asim Hussain, a co-founder, as residents hurriedly left the city for long-planned trips abroad. The new rules aren’t enough to bring people to Hong Kong, he said, and he plans to write a complaint to the government.

He said he also wonders whether Hong Kong has changed irrevocably after months of protests, the ensuing silence of dissent and more than two years of isolation.

“My industry demands that I be optimistic, but I haven’t found many reasons for optimism over the three years,” Hussain said. “It was so difficult. In a way – although certainty is in sight – it’s more frustrating.

“I definitely feel,” he added, “that we’ve been through something really tough together as a community.”

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Bidens to serve Maine lobster to Macron despite Whole Foods ban over its danger to whales

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American Osetra caviar poached in butter lobster out MaineBeef and Californian wines are presented beforehand Emmanuel Macron for a state dinner hosted by the President Joe Biden for its French counterpaCentre County Report.

The Biden family and the Macrons will be paCentre County Report of a red, white and blue gathering at a pavilion set up on the South Lawn of the White House for the American president’s first state visit since he was elected to office in 2021.

The menu, released before dinner for 300 to 400 guests on Thursday, showed the gathering will eat shallot jam, a selection of tri-state cheeses, potatoes and beef, washed down with wines from California.

Newton “Unfiltered” Chardonnay and Anakota “Knights Valley” Cabernet Sauvignon, along with a Californian sparkling wine with French roots, Roederer Estate Brut Rose, are served to the gathering. For desseCentre County Report, orange chiffon cake and roasted pears with citrus sauce and creme fraiche ice cream are on the menu.

However, the inclusion of the Maine lobster is right after whole food announced his decision to halt sales of the delicacy due to threats to endangered whales raised eyebrows.

The grocery chain said it will stop selling lobster caught in the Gulf of Maine staCentre County Reporting next month over endangerment concerns NoCentre County Reporth Atlantic right whales get caught in fishing gear. Scientists estimate there are fewer than 350 NoCentre County Reporth Atlantic right whales left, mostly due to human causes.

The company’s decision follows changes in sustainability ratings for Maine’s lobster fishery by separate Centre County Report seafood watchdog groups.

The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) suspended its ceCentre County Reportification of the Gulf of Maine lobster fishery in early November after the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s (MBA) Seafood Watch Program downgraded Maine lobsters to its red list.

Whole Foods said the decision to stop buying the lobsters was made to maintain its responsibility for sourcing standards set in 2012.

They dictate that wild-caught seafood sold in hundreds of stores must come from fisheries ceCentre County Reportified by the MSC or classified as “yellow” or “green” by the MBA.

“These third-paCentre County Reporty reviews and ratings are critical to maintaining the integrity of our standards for all wild-caught seafood found in our seafood depaCentre County Reportment,” the company said in a statement.

Whole Foods will stop sourcing Maine lobsters effective Dec. 15 but will sell the rest of its supply, the grocery chain said.

The controversial ban has sparked an outcry from Maine’s elected officials and the lobster industry.

Four members of the Maine congressional delegation issued a strongly worded statement criticizing the decision.

“We are disappointed by Whole Foods’ decision and deeply frustrated that the Marine Stewardship Council’s suspension of the lobster industry’s sustainability ceCentre County Reportification continues to impact the livelihoods of hard-working men and women along the Maine coast,” the senators said in a statement Susan Collins and Angus King and Representatives Chellie Pingree and Jared Golden, and Maine Gov. Janet Mills.

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Asia’s factory activity shrinks as China lockdowns weigh on firms | Manufacturing

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Falling production underscores the darkening economic outlook for Asia in 2023 as China’s lockdowns upend supply chains.

Factory production fell sharply across Asia in November as slowing global demand and uncertainty about the fallout from China’s strict COVID-19 lockdown weighed on business sentiment.

The results underscore Asia’s darkening economic outlook for 2023 as lockdowns disrupt international supplies and fuel fears of a further slump in its economy, the world’s second largest.

Amid the pandemic containment, China’s factory activity shrank in November, a private survey showed on Thursday. The result implied weaker employment and economic growth in the fourth quarter.

Manufacturing activity also shrank in export-dependent economies like Japan and South Korea, and emerging markets like Vietnam, underscoring the mounting damage from weak global demand and stubbornly high input costs, surveys showed.

“Cooling market conditions, ongoing cost pressures and weak underlying demand, both domestic and international, were reportedly key factors contributing to the declines,” said economist Laura Denman of S&P Global Market Intelligence, which compiles the Japan survey.

China’s Caixin/S&P Global Manufacturing Purchasing Managers’ Index (PMI) came in at 49.4 in November, up from 49.2 in the previous month but still below the 50-line separating growth from contraction. He has now been below 50 for four straight months.

The figure followed dismal data in an official survey on Wednesday showed that manufacturing activity hit a seven-month low in November.

Japan’s au Jibun Bank PMI also fell to 49.0 in November from 50.7 in October. That was the first contraction since November 2020.

South Korea’s factory activity contracted for the fifth straight month in November, but the slowdown moderated slightly, possibly indicating the worst was over for companies.

Still South Korea’s exports in November suffered its sharpest annual decline in two and a half years, separate data showed on Thursday, hit by slowing global demand in key markets led by China and a downturn in the semiconductor industry.

Lockdowns in China have impacted production at a factory there, which is Apple’s largest maker. They have also fueled rare street protests in many cities.

The effects of China’s woes were widespread across Asia. Taiwan’s PMI came in at 41.6 in November, up slightly from October’s 41.5 but remained well below the 50 mark.

Vietnam’s PMI fell to 47.4 in November from 50.6 in October, while Indonesia’s slipped to 50.3 from 51.8, private surveys showed.

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ISIS leader killed during battle in Syria & terror cell announces name of new boss

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THE leader of ISIS was killed in combat, the terror group said.

That extremists have unveiled a new commander after Abu Hasan al-Hashimi al-Qurashi died in battle Syria.

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Islamic State fighters pose on the border between Syria and IraqCredit: Alamy
The terrorist group has confirmed its leader

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The terrorist group has confirmed its leaderPhoto credit: Getty

Al-Quraishi was selected to lead IS fighters in March before he was killed in an operation by the Free Syrian Rebel Army in mid-October, the US military said.

No American troops were involved in the operation, the county’s military spokesman said.

IS spokesman Abu Omar al-Muhajer confirmed the leader’s death in an audio message on Wednesday.

He said al-Quraishi was killed while “fighting enemies of God,” without elaborating.

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Al-Quraishi was appointed in March afterwards Joe Biden announced the death of Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi in Syria.

The US President said the leader blew himself and his family up after he used his own children as human shields in a bloody raid by US special forces.

He was blamed after former boss Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was killed in a similar raid by US forces in the nearby city of Barisha in 2019.

The jihadists have announced their newest leader as Abu al-Hussein al-Husseini al-Qurashi.

The ISIS spokesman didn’t go into many details about the new boss, but said he was an “experienced” jihadist and called on all groups loyal to IS to pledge allegiance.

Hassan Hassan, author of a book on Islamic State, said the group has shrunk.

He said: “It doesn’t mean the group is finished, but at the moment they’re a shadow of their former selves, they’re hollowed out in terms of their leadership and their ability to execute attacks.

“They no longer have iconic, charismatic leaders and they haven’t launched any major attacks recently.”

The White House welcomed the news that al-Quraishi had been killed, National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters.

Emerging from the chaos of civil war in neighboring Iraq, Islamic State conquered large parts of Iraq and Syria in 2014.

Former IS caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi proclaimed an Islamic caliphate from a mosque in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul that year and declared himself the caliph of all Muslims.

Islamic State’s brutal rule, during which it killed and executed thousands of people in the name of its narrow interpretation of Islam, ended in Mosul when Iraqi and international forces defeated the group there in 2017.

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Since the peak of its power seven years ago, when it ruled millions of people in the Middle East and terrified the world with deadly bombings and shootings, the Islamic State has once again slipped into the shadows.

Its remaining thousands of militants have mostly hidden in remote hinterlands of fractured Iraq and Syria in recent years, though they are still capable of conducting significant insurgency-style attacks.

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