When Beijing-based banker Peter Ling-Vannerus landed in Hong Kong this month, he was given a stark choice: spend 14 days in quarantine or hop straight back on a flight and leave the city.
He opted to spend time in Thailand rather than be confined in Hong Kong. Mr Ling-Vannerus’ experience is typical of the thousands of international bankers, investors and lawyers who live in what is normally one of the world’s busiest regions for dealmaking and business travel.
Since the deadly coronavirus erupted in January, scores of bankers and their families have fled mainland China and Hong Kong to work in offices elsewhere in Asia. In the process, their often luxurious expatriate lives have been disrupted, with international schools shut and domestic helpers unable to follow them to third countries.
Those who have remained within China have been subject to strict rules severely limiting movement between cities and sometimes within neighbourhoods. A lockdown on travel across the region has brought business in greater China to a near standstill.
“It’s been very, very quiet here over the past few days,” said Mr Ling-Vannerus, who eventually returned to Hong Kong where he is staying with his family. He has set up a home office but does not know when he will be able to return to Beijing.
Even within China, business travel has ground to a halt. In China’s Hubei province, which is at the centre of the outbreak, about 55m people have been quarantined since late January. But in the political and financial hubs of Beijing and Shanghai, travellers returning home from other parts of China are required to stay at home for two weeks, making trips between the cities nearly impossible.
One China-based executive at a western bank who regularly flies between the two cities said he had been forced to hole up in Shanghai until restrictions were lifted.
“If I continued making monthly trips, I would spend 14 days quarantined in Shanghai and 14 in Beijing. I would only work two days a month,” he said.
Another regular commute for bankers is between Hong Kong and Shenzhen. The mainland Chinese city just over the border from the territory is a tech hub that hosts companies such as telecom equipment multinational Huawei.
Chinese companies on the Shenzhen side are also important sources of business for capital markets activity in Hong Kong, which serves as China’s international financial centre. But this month, the Hong Kong government imposed quarantine restrictions on anyone crossing into the territory, effectively closing the border.
Bankers, like other expats in Hong Kong and Beijing, have not only had their work but also their private lives disrupted. Schools in Hong Kong, for instance, have been closed since January, with the deadline for reopening extended until after Easter.
With business slow, many bankers in Hong Kong are growing frustrated. One banker bemoaned being stuck at home on one of Hong Kong’s outlying islands. “I haven’t left the island in almost two weeks, I’m going stir crazy,” he said.
The adverse conditions have led many expatriate professionals to leave, with Hong Kong removal companies saying the outbreak has exacerbated an exodus started by anti-government protests in the city last year.
“We have more demand than staff,” said YB Ng, vice-president at Hong Kong moving company Asian Tigers.
Steve Dressler of Trade Winds, a removal company for workers in the financial services sector, said expat professionals were not prepared to sign new rental leases. Instead, he was moving people out or helping them store their belongings as they went abroad to wait out the crisis.
Executive recruitment firms in the financial industry said the pipeline of overseas talent for Hong Kong and China was also drying up. Vince Natteri of Pinpoint Asia, a banking technology recruiter, said some clients in insurance and banking were cancelling new appointments or pushing back start dates.
“It’s a tougher sell with this virus situation,” Mr Natteri said. “It’s one thing to do interviews and quite another to come to Hong Kong.”
Additional reporting from George Hammond in Hong Kong