When Nicole Kidman flew into Hong Kong to film a television series about wealthy expatriates, residents could not help noticing some of the perks at hand: a private jet, a personal driver and, most important, a pass out of mandatory quarantine.
Some of them saw a case of life imitating art, or the power of celebrity, or at least a public relations misstep amid a pandemic.
But either way, many people in the Chinese territory regarded the Australian actress’ end-run around coronavirus rules — some of the strictest in the world — as a symbol of the unfairness that pervades a city known for its soaring inequalities. On Friday, the rare exemption was a point of debate on the floor of the city’s legislature.
“Now that you have created a precedent, does that mean that all foreign movie stars will be exempted when they fly to Hong Kong to film movies?” Michael Tien, a pro-establishment lawmaker, asked Sophia Chan, the health secretary. “If not, can you explain why Nicole was superior to everyone else? Even though I like her a lot.”
Kidman went shopping in central Hong Kong two days after she flew in from Sydney on a private jet, The South China Morning Post reported. The government later confirmed that she and four crew members had been allowed to bypass a rule that required vaccinated travelers from Australia to quarantine in a hotel for a week. (The time was increased to two weeks Friday.)
A Hong Kong regulation allows a top city official to grant quarantine exemptions to people whose work is deemed “in the interest” of the city’s economic development. The Commerce and Economic Development Bureau said Thursday that Kidman’s exemption allows her to carry out “designated professional work” that is seen as necessary to the local economy.
But in a city where the borders have been closed to nonresidents for much of the pandemic — and where some inbound travelers are still required to quarantine in hotels for three weeks — Kidman’s exemption has not gone over well.
Several critics have noted that Kidman is in Hong Kong to film “Expats,” an Amazon Prime Video series based on “The Expatriates,” a 2016 novel by Janice Y.K. Lee that satirizes affluent Westerners in the financial hub. Others contrasted her freedom to travel with conditions in Australia, observing that she visited an upscale Hong Kong clothing boutique just as Sydney went back into lockdown. (One Hong Kong journalist reported that Kidman’s driver had parked a Range Rover illegally in a crosswalk while waiting for her to shop.)
Spokespeople for Kidman did not immediately respond to a request for comment Friday. Some of the photos of her Hong Kong trip show her wearing a mask in public, as most people there have been doing since COVID-19 first emerged in the neighboring Chinese mainland.
Some Hong Kongers see the Amazon show as being produced at an unfortunate time, with some residents fleeing a crackdown on dissent that has ensnared opposition politicians, university students and others who supported the city’s widespread anti-government protests of 2019.
Many residents have long complained about Hong Kong’s inequalities, and territory leaders have faced other public backlashes for setting different COVID rules for the rich and the poor.
In May, the government quietly announced a plan to exempt corporate executives from quarantine but later put the plan on pause.
About the same time, officials backtracked on an order that would have required migrant domestic workers to be vaccinated. But the government went ahead with a plan to subject those workers to a second round of compulsory coronavirus testing, even though the first round had turned up only three cases among 340,000 people.