EDITORIAL – (Re)Opening up

Macau Business Editorial | September 2022 | By José Carlos Matias – Director

Late August brought us two encouraging signs. The first is entry without prior authorization for foreigners visiting Macau from 41 countries, arriving from Hong Kong, Taiwan and overseas. It’s a key step that paves the way to gradually bringing back international tourists, though the “7+3”quarantine and “self-health management” requirements persist for now. As long as the quarantine remains in place this move will most likely favour a segment of business travellers and not so much tourists.

Should we see this as a glass half-full or half-empty? The former, if it’s followed through in the short-term with a further reduction of mandatory medical observation to “3+4” (as in Hong Kong) and “0+7”, with the ultimate goal  (the sooner the better) of safely attaining an entirely quarantine-free arrangement.

The absence on the list of 41 countries of some Southeast Asian nations and some Portuguese-speaking countries (with only Portugal and Brazil included) has raised a few eyebrows. One expects a rapid expansion of the list to include those countries absent from the list with which the city has strong social, economic and historic ties.

This is expected to unfold in the coming months as a gradual reopening with a healthy flow of visitors (from the mainland and overseas) allowed through the borders, provided there is an evolution in the dynamic zero-COVID policy.

In the meantime, the resumption of quarantine-free mobility between Macau and Hong Kong would be the much-needed game changer for local businesses. In an interview in this issue of Macau Business, Hong Kong’s Convenor of the Executive Council, Regina Ip, hints at the formula: once our neighbouring SAR has established a suitable border-crossing model with Shenzhen, we can expect Macau to follow suit. The ways Macau and Hong Kong have handled the COVID-19 pandemic indeed make for A tale of two SARs, with the city across the estuary adopting its own way of fighting the pandemic. To be expected, surely, given how widely the SARs’ features differ –not least their economic structures and levels of reliance on the Mainland market. Still, local communities and businesses badly need the authorities in both SARs and the Mainland to find that model quickly. To that end, the newly proposed Hong Kong–Shenzhen “reverse quarantine” arrangement might just be the first of several steps needed to swiftly restore long-sought resumption of full mobility across the whole of the Greater Bay Area. (Note that Hong Kong visitation accounted for 18 per cent of Macau’s pre-COVID arrivals.).

Mobility is really the key word here, and our second of late August’s two encouraging signs has to do with Macau–Hengqin mobility for the SAR’s non-Chinese residents. The Commissioner of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the PRC in the Macau SAR, Liu Xianfa, announced that, as of September 1, foreign nationals holding a Macau permanent resident identity card are eligible for 5-year, multi-entry visas for the neighbouring Guangdong-Macau In-depth Cooperation Zone in Hengqin, with non-permanent residents also eligible for a multi-entry permit, valid for the same term as their ID card. This crucial, most welcome move signals an attitude of inclusivity towards the thousands of non-Chinese Macau SAR residents who can play an important role in contributing to the future development of Hengqin. As we mark the first anniversary of the Zone’s establishment and the announcement of the master plan for the joint development of the neighbouring island, local and international business communities are also looking forward, beyond the end of pandemic-related restrictions, to additional favourable measures and policies that will inject confidence through increased mobility of capital and an improved legal framework.

A missed opportunity

The Macau Chamber of Commerce (ACM) – the city’s leading and most influential business group – issued a valuable document presenting relevant suggestions for lending businesses and citizens struggling to make ends meet a helping hand. In it, the ACM suggested the Government to approve a new round of cash handouts for residents, along with consumption vouchers of MOP3,000 each for non-residents, as part of a second, much-needed MOP10-billion COVID-19 pandemic relief package. The Chamber of Commerce also recommended that individuals and entities that had not been covered by one-off subsidies in the first MOP10-billion package should receive grants under this new round of relief.

The proposal to include the SAR’s 158,000-strong non-resident workforce (blue card holders) in the relief package, by way of an e-consumption voucher, was not only sensible, humane and fair, it was also pragmatic. Unfortunately, shortly after the ACM’s proposal was made public, we saw voices within the local community –lawmakers included – opposing the measure, citing the alleged “social tensions” it would engender. These views flirt with populism and protectionism and do not serve the city well. More disappointing was seeing the Chief Executive eventually rule the ACM’s proposal out.

Non-resident workers live and labour side-by-side with those holding resident status and contribute every single day to the city’s development. Many of them are in vulnerable situations. The measure put forth by the ACM had no potential to neglect residents’ needs; on the contrary, it was a wise, well-thought-out and mutually beneficial proposal that prioritized locals while at the same time signalling inclusivity of migrant workers, one that lived up to the city’s history and social fabric of our society. What’s more, the approximately MOP474 million needed for the MOP3,000 e-consumption voucher for blue card holders would have accounted for less than 5 per cent of the overall MOP10-billion package and was money that would have been injected directly into the local economy (mostly local SMEs).

Let’s hope, next time, the Government won’t miss an opportunity like this to get it right.