Anniversary anxiety: Hong Kong businesses remain on edge

Businesses brace for more unrest as activists gear up for 70th anniversary protests.

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Protests against the Hong Kong government have become more violent in recent weeks, hurting business confidence in the Chinese territory [Athit Perawongmetha/Reuters]

Hong Kong, China – “For better or worse, it will be the day that changes this movement,” says Hong Kong protest organiser Bonnie Leung, referring to October 1, when China marks 70 years since the founding of the People’s Republic.

Months of protests that began with demands for the government to retract a bill that would have allowed for suspects to be extradited to the mainland, have morphed into broader discontent with the government over living standards and economic opportunities. They have already dented business confidence and hurt key sectors such as shops and tourism.

There were more violent protests over the weekend, with police using water cannon and tear gas to disperse demonstrators marking five years since the so-called Umbrella Movement which demanded – and failed to win – universal suffrage.

And it is rhetoric like Leung’s that has businesses in the city on edge ahead of the events marking the anniversary. 

Many here fear that an escalation in violence by the protesters could lead to a military crackdown by Beijing, potentially ending Hong Kong’s status as a semi-autonomous region. That status has allowed it greater freedom of expression than the mainland and endowed it with an independent judiciary, key ingredients that have made Hong Kong a vibrant hub for investment for decades.

Leung is vice convener of the Civil Human Rights Front (CHRF). The group has a track record of holding peaceful demonstrations since the protest movement began in June.

Leung told Al Jazeera that the CHRF is advocating for “calm but stern” protests on October 1 because level-headedness is likely to elicit more sympathy from international onlookers than if protesters are seen to act violently.

However, she cannot say what action the more hardline protesters – who she refers to as “The Braves” – will take.

“We use different means than ‘The Braves’ to achieve the same goal, but we do not condemn each other, we are one unit. But we are concerned about their safety on October 1 as they are talking about ramping up their actions on that day if their demands are not met.”

Worst since SARS

The retail and tourism sectors have been among the hardest hit so far. Several countries, including Australia, the United Kingdom and Japan heightened travel warnings for the city, while travellers have in the past few months had their plans disrupted by protests at Chek Lap Kok airport.

As a result, Hong Kong saw tourist arrivals fall by 40 percent in August on the same month a year ago, while hotels in some parts of the city saw occupancy rates plunge to around half in the same month. That is the biggest downturn since Hong Kong was rattled by an outbreak of the SARS virus in 2003.

“Our business has not seen a monthly year-on-year drop since SARS, and it has everything to do with tourist numbers” Michael Tien, founder and chairman of clothing chain G2000 and a pro-Beijing member of the city’s legislative council, told Al Jazeera.

“Our total retail sales fell 10 percent in July compared to the same time last year, 25 percent in August compared to last year and September will be around 20-25 percent again. We normally see single-digit increases.”

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Anti-government protests have paralysed parts of the Asian financial hub since June [Britt Clennett/Al Jazeera]

Tien, who is also a deputy to China’s top legislative body, the National People’s Congress, says one remedy that would help the retail sector is for Chinese conglomerates that drive Hong Kong’s property sector to offer rental concessions for tenants.

“Beijing would be sympathetic to this measure because it has learned through this process that the political unrest is related to livelihood issues” says Tien.

But that alone is unlikely to be a silver bullet, as flashpoints on the protest calendar loom.

Meanwhile, housing prices remain among the most expensive in the world. For years they have been driven higher by a chronic shortage in the supply of property and, in turn, have fuelled resentment among young people who find it even harder to own their own home. 

The latest data from Centaline Property, a large real estate agency, shows prices for used homes fell by around three percent over the last month, but are still near record highs.

Political solution

There has been speculation for months that Beijing would use military force or invoke emergency powers in Hong Kong to curtail the unrest, in a bid to avoid protests in Hong Kong overshadowing celebrations in Beijing.

But Leung says it would be counterproductive for Beijing to use force in Hong Kong, invoking memories of the crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in the capital’s Tiananmen Square which left hundreds dead.

“We all remember what happened 30 years ago in Tiananmen Square … China uses the Hong Kong system for business, so any emergency legislation, troops on the ground or curfews, will scare away businesses. It’s not a smart strategy.”

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The city is preparing for an escalation of violence on October 1 [Britt Clennett/Al Jazeera]

That’s something Tien can agree on.

“I fear the violence will escalate to unprecedented levels on October 1. But If you use force you are playing with fire. After all, this is a political problem.”

He says that whether the protests carry on, and whether businesses continue to suffer, will depend on Lam. “It comes down to what she intends to do with some of the protest demands. If she stays put, without budging an inch, I cannot see the light at the end of the tunnel.”

Tien believes Chief Executive Carrie Lam should set up an independent inquiry, one of the protesters’ five demands, to help defuse tensions.

Joseph Wong, former secretary for commerce, industry and technology, says Lam should take it a step further.

I agree that by carrying out an independent inquiry, and therefore answering the protesters’ second demand, it may not satisfy the protests or put a stop to the movement,” Wong told Al Jazeera.

“So Beijing and the Hong Kong government should start a process to really address the political aspiration behind the protest movement, which is a democratic development, with the ultimate goal of universal suffrage.”

Whether that is an unrealistic goal or not, it is clear the protesters are determined to keep up the fight.

“I dearly hope that the radical aspects of the protest will refrain from violent acts and vandalism and I hope that the October 1 will pass peacefully. But I doubt very much that the protest movement will die down.”

Tien expects protesters to maintain the momentum until November at least, when the city holds District Council elections.

“And for that reason I expect a 20 percent monthly year-on-year loss to continue for the months ahead.”

But Leung has a message for companies on edge: “Although it might look chaotic now, I want to tell businesses that we want to help. In the long term, we are trying to create a better system.”

Source: Al Jazeera