But in recent weeks, they have become synonymous with a much more grimmer reality, as authorities in the two international finance hubs struggle to contain raging Omicron outbreaks.
Extreme Covid measures have heavily restricted the lives of residents in both cities, with Shanghai now entering the third week of government-mandated home lockdown, and Hong Kong chafing under a third year of quarantine and travel curbs.
Once China’s gateways to the West, heavy-handed border closures and suspended air routes have closed the two cities off to much of the world, even as other hubs open up.
Now most of the traffic is outbound, carrying residents fleeing Hong Kong for greener pastures with fewer restrictions. In February and March, more than 180,000 people left the city while only about 39,000 entered, according to immigration data.
Shanghai, like Hong Kong, is home to large numbers of foreign residents – but fears are growing that too could soon change.
A recent report by the British Chamber of Commerce in China appeared to back up this assessment, noting that international schools in China could see at least 40% of teachers leave ahead of the upcoming school year – which could prompt more families to relocate.
Driving these departures is China’s adherence to an uncompromising zero-covid policy that relies on a combination of strict border quarantines, home lockdowns and mass testing in a bid to stamp out infections.
“Shanghai is really pushing us to the corner. They don’t treat us like humans at all,” one user wrote on Weibo, China’s highly censored Twitter-like platform.
“I really can’t understand. How could it be this bad? What’s happening to Shanghai?” another popular Weibo comment read.
Before this wave, Shanghai officials had prided themselves on their less disruptive approach to containing outbreaks, and had avoided the kind of citywide mass testing seen in other major Chinese cities.
Hong Kong, too, had once been lauded as a zero-covid success story. Though it had previously faced several outbreaks, its death rate remained low until a fifth wave arrived in February. The risk of infection seemed so low that many residents – particularly the elderly – didn’t view vaccination as a priority, leaving much of the city vulnerable when Omicron struck.
Now, as a growing number of residents look to leave, that sense of relative safety – and both cities’ standing as international capitals of travel and commerce – seems further away than ever.
“We’ve gone over a month without making any money as a business,” said Josh Vaughn, an American entrepreneur in Shanghai who owns an online sunglasses brand. “It makes me stressed thinking about it because I don’t know when this lockdown is going to end … I’m so scared that this could be the end of my business.”
Vaughn said that after contracting Covid this month he faced hostility from his neighbors, who were reluctant to let him back into his apartment building after he was discharged from hospital – echoing similar experiences from other expatriates who have felt ostracized.
Wuttke, the European Union Chamber of Commerce president, warned that the economic impact of China’s Covid sanctions could push some foreign companies to consider moving regional headquarters out of greater China – throwing the future of major business hubs like Shanghai and Hong Kong into question as the rest of the world opens up.
Chinese authorities have acknowledged this precarious position, with Hong Kong’s leader Carrie Lam saying in late March, “I have a very strong feeling that people’s tolerance is fading … that some of our financial institutions are losing patience about this sort of isolated status of Hong Kong, as Hong Kong is an international financial center. “
In an effort to boost Hong Kong’s flagging economy, Lam lifted some flight bans and shortened quarantine requirements last month. But it may be too little, too late – especially as Chinese officials and state media ramp up rhetoric praising China’s zero-covid policy, offering little hope that these international financial centers will open up anytime soon.
Gabriele, an Italian resident in Shanghai who asked to be identified by his first name only, tested positive in early April and has since been confined to his apartment for more than three weeks, he said.
Describing the situation as a “nightmare”, Gabriele said health workers said they would come to test him again but “never showed up,” and attempts to contact local authorities have gone nowhere. “We feel helpless,” he said.
Now, he’s thinking of moving home for good – leaving behind a city he had once loved. “The city completely lost its shine. I don’t know if it will recover,” he said. “It’s like a completely different city … it really feels like we’re going backwards in time instead of looking forward to the future.”