Hong Kong, China – In Hong Kong’s bustling district of Mong Kok, patrons flowed in and out of bars and restaurants over a busy summer weekend recently.
But at Shinko, a popular Japanese izakaya restaurant, there was not a customer in sight.
The restaurant had been forced to halt nighttime 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 penalties under Hong Kong’s pandemic rules, which include restrictive measures long since been 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 helpless, it makes me question if the authorities want to stop us from doing business in Hong Kong,” Hei, one of the restaurant’s co-owners, told Al Jazeera.
Shinko is among the Hong Kong businesses 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 wider movement that saw violent clashes between protesters and police.
Businesses like Shinko’s are known locally as being part of the “yellow economy” — yellow being the colour associated with pro-democracy sentiment in the Chinese-ruled city.
Once an integral part of the political landscape, Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement has been largely silenced since Beijing imposed a draconian national security law on the territory in 2020.
Despite China’s promises to leave the former British colony’s rights and freedoms intact after its return to Chinese rule, most of the movement’s leaders have been arrested, disqualified from office, or forced into exile. Media and civil society, once widely regarded as among the freest in the region, increasingly toe 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’s acolytes. Those include mouthpiece media, which frequently accuses establishments of defying the government’s COVID-19 restrictions and “spreading separatism” by displaying protest slogans and banners.
Hei, who asked not to use her full name, said her business has adhered strictly to the government’s COVID-19 restrictions to avoid complications, in part because she expects greater scrutiny, going as far as hiring extra staff to check customers’ vaccination records.
But Hei said her restaurant still receives more attention than others in her neighbourhood, with the establishment subjected 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 violating the law can face a fine of 5,000 Hong Kong dollars ($637), while the establishment in question can have its opening hours restricted for 14 days. Patrons entering bars must also present a negative COVID-19 test from the past 24 hours, with proprietors required to meet 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 authorities’ attention.
“But I have realised it is not helpful, no matter how low profile you are, if they need to handle you, they will come,” she said.
Both the Hong Kong Police Force and the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department (FEHD) carry out inspections for adherence to COVID-19 restrictions.
From March 2020 to August 2022, the police conducted more than 52,000 inspections, resulting in the issuing of 890 reminders, 3,258 fine tickets and 638 prosecutions. The FEHD said it has conducted more than 605,000 inspections, resulting in 2,432 prosecutions. It also said 1,257 catering businesses have faced “timeout” penalties.
Asked what criteria go into choosing a business for inspection, the police said details of its operations are “not to be disclosed”, but that officers will act “on the basis of actual circumstances” and according to the law.
“The only objective of police operations is to appeal to the public to strictly follow relevant regulations in order to reduce the risks of spreading [the] virus,” a police spokesperson said.
Despite its measures, Shinko was penalised after a raid in mid-July and had to cease dine-in services after 6pm. Hei said her staff checked customers’ vaccination records upon entry, but a customer failed to present a valid QR code when questioned by police.
The suspension of dine-in services slashed Shinko’s takings by half, resulting in a six-figure loss. There are currently no means for businesses to appeal the penalties against them.
While official guidelines require establishments to check customers’ vaccination records before admission, they do not stipulate whether proprietors are expected to verify the authenticity of such records.
“If an operator has exercised his due diligence in scanning the QR code of a customer which was found to be a fraudulent one, a HK$5,000 [$637] fixed penalty notice would be issued to the customer,” an FEHD spokesperson said.
Hei said that in future, her staff may have to check people’s identification cards to match their names to their vaccination records, even though many chain restaurants get by with simply asking customers to scan their own vaccine pass upon entry.
Some entrepreneurs have chosen to shut up shop and relocate overseas. Herbert Chow, a pro-democracy businessman who owns the clothing and retailing chain Chickeeduck, left Hong Kong in May after police raided a store that prominently displayed a protest slogan.
In August, Chickeeduck, which has been repeatedly pinpointed as a national security threat by pro-Beijing media, announced that all of its stores will shut after their 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 United Kingdom.
Others have sought a new start in nearby Taiwan, including 37-year-old Teddy Ng, who owned a catering and online retail business in Hong Kong.
In July, Ng announced that his restaurant of close to 10 years will shut after its lease runs out in September. His online retailing website, which together with his restaurant employs 25 people, will also be winding down.
While Ng said he is proud of the restaurant surviving the pandemic, he is disappointed with the government policies that drove him away.
“These COVID restrictions interfere with our daily operations, but are they effective?” Ng told Al Jazeera, adding that Hong Kong had failed to keep up with the global trend towards living with COVID-19.
While Hong Kong earlier this month introduced a mainland-China-style health code for entry to establishments such as bars and restaurants, countries such as the UK, France and New Zealand long ago scrapped vaccine passes. Despite its moniker as “Asia’s World City,” Hong Kong is among a handful of jurisdictions still requiring arrivals to undergo hotel quarantine.
Though Ng’s move to Taiwan meant giving up on a decade of business ties and his customer base in Hong Kong, he finds the new environment much less stressful and is hoping to open a restaurant in Taipei by October.
Like Shinko, Ng’s restaurant in Hong Kong was also targeted by pro-government media and was subject to frequent inspections. He said Hong Kong is no longer truly a free market due to the political sensitivities and COVID-19 curbs in the city.
“This is why we are willing to give up all these things and start over in a new place,” Ng said.