Wednesday. 26/2/2020

The Monocle Minute

Opinion / James Chambers

Better days ahead

Spring arrived in Hong Kong over the weekend. The sun was out, the temperature was back above 20C and people were crowding the streets. A new Italian restaurant next door to my apartment was decorated with opening-day flowers and families inside were taking off their masks to tuck into brunch.

Hong Kong is still in the middle of the coronavirus outbreak but business – and life – does go on. Yes, everyone is taking sensible precautions but the economy has not shut down and there are always fresh opportunities just round the corner for those who take panicky headlines with a pinch of salt and ignore the latest internet rumours about condoms (and coffins) running out.

Today’s news in the city will be full of reports about the government’s latest budget and the finance secretary’s fresh relief measures. Huge sums of money will be doled out this year to hard-hit families and small-business owners – and rightly so. Hong Kong has a gigantic rainy-day fund. Right now these handouts will seem like small compensation but this business-driven city will bounce back and its industrious residents will already be eyeing the recovery.

Hearing from people who have experienced these kinds of downturns before can provide some useful perspective and a bit of inspiration. During an interview on Monday, one veteran business owner told me how she moved to Hong Kong in the 1990s as an air steward and became her own boss during a three-year furlough from a US airline that had entered bankruptcy protection after September 11. She never looked back and two decades later the business she built up survived Sars and will outlive coronavirus. I’m looking forward to reporting on a similar success story next spring about a young entrepreneur who lost their job this year and went on to better things.

Diplomacy / Portugal & Venezuela

Tap out

Portugal’s national carrier TAP Air Portugal has found itself in the middle of a diplomatic row with Caracas. A week ago Nicolás Maduro’s government banned TAP from flying into Venezuela for the next three months, citing a breach of public trust. This week the Portuguese and Venezuelan foreign ministers met in Geneva to discuss a way forward but found no immediate solution. The row goes back to early February when Juan Guaidó – who claims that he, not Maduro, is Venezuela’s rightful leader – was on an unsanctioned tour of European capitals to drum up support and chose TAP for his return journey. The irony is that Guaidó’s choice of airline was one of necessity: the Star Alliance member is one of the few international airlines that had not cancelled flights to Caracas, mainly due to the close historic relationship between Portugal and Venezuela and the large Portuguese diaspora in the South American country. Maduro might have overplayed his hand here and, in the process, damaged one of Venezuela’s few remaining economic lifelines.

Economy / South Africa

Gloomy forecasts

It hasn’t been an easy year for South Africa so far. And when the government announces its budget today, it could be make or break for Africa’s second-largest economy. The country has been fighting to maintain investor confidence in the face of growing debt and a stagnant private sector. Of particular concern are the huge problems at struggling state-owned energy company Eskom.

The result has been increasingly frequent power cuts that have had a knock-on effect on the manufacturing and mining industries. If this week’s plans don’t credibly rein in debt – and the expectation is that they won’t – South Africa’s credit rating is likely to fully enter junk territory, prompting debt costs to spiral further. Coupled with the more general dampening effect of coronavirus, things aren’t looking too positive. Can the government pull a surprise out of the bag?

Society / China

Silenced in court

A Chinese court sentenced publisher Gui Minhai to 10 years in jail yesterday for “illegally providing intelligence abroad”. Gui (pictured), a Chinese-born Swedish citizen, has been in and out of Chinese detention since 2015 when he went missing during a holiday in Thailand. He is known to have published books that were critical of the country’s leadership and was co-owner of a Hong Kong shop that supposedly sold publications about the personal lives of Chinese Communist party members. The EU and the German government have spoken out against his detainment, as has free-speech campaigner PEN International, which awarded Gui its prestigious Tucholsky award in 2019. “Gui’s conviction is both outrageous and devastating,” says the association’s executive director, Carles Torner. “His trial was held in secret and the charges against him appear to be completely unsubstantiated. We urge China to release Gui Minhai immediately and unconditionally.”

Aviation / Australia

Project runway

After eight years, and at a cost of more than AU$1bn (€600m), a second runway at Brisbane Airport (pictured) is set to open in July. Queensland’s state capital is hoping for a boost in trade and tourism thanks to new routes, including to Chicago and Tokyo. Brisbane, the country’s northernmost large city, is also well placed to develop closer links to Asia; the state government is projecting that an extra AU$5bn (€3bn) will be pumped into the region’s economy over the next 15 years thanks to the new runway. Cautious flyers might be avoiding travel in Asia due to coronavirus for the time being but as a long-term play, the airport easily beats the ambition of Brisbane’s rival cities. Sydney’s beleaguered second international airport, for instance, is still six years from completion.

M24 / The Menu

Food Neighbourhoods 173: Barcelona’s Poble Sec

We head to Barcelona’s neighbourhood of Poble Sec to explore its flourishing food and drink scene – and taste some of the city’s best tapas.

Monocle Films / Poland

Officer class: Poland's military university

Monocle Films visits Poland's land forces academy, which is nurturing the next generation of officers to fuel its expanding defence forces.

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