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Hong Kong's democracy: follow the money

There is a golden rule when it comes to questions of political freedom in Hong Kong: the business community backs Beijing. That's what happened in 1997 and it was still overwhelmingly the case during the Occupy/Umbrella protests of 2014.

No longer. What is so notable about the current wave of demonstrations, beyond the one million or so people on the streets, the predictable chorus of support from overseas and the equally predictable over-reaction of the city state's police force (tear gas and rubber bullets), is that business is switching sides.

Not only are there are a fair number of bankers, lawyers and other professionals among those demonstrating against the city's divisive extradition bill. Companies are letting the politicians know -- both in Hong Kong and in Beijing -- that they are deeply concerned. While the local tycoons are mostly doing so behind closed doors, foreign investors have started to go public. Tara Joseph, president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong, stated a day or so ago that: "The passage of this bill comes at the expense of the business community, and we fear business confidence will suffer. The credibility of Hong Kong is now on the line."

Business people hate to speak out on political subjects -- just think of the lack of courage that UK firms are demonstrating when it comes to warning about the disaster that is Brexit, for fear of offending customers and consumers. So a bold statement of the kind made by Ms Joseph reflects genuine concern. 

This has two main sources. The first is that the new law -- if it is passed -- would allow foreigners and visitors to Hong Kong (not just local citizens) to be extradited to the mainland, potentially under trumped up charges. Given what has happened to both a local bookseller and several HK-based Chinese businessmen...and what is happening in reverse to Huawei's CFO in Canada, this is no longer just a theoretical worry. 

The second issue is that Hong Kong's trading partners, led by the US, may judge that the "special status" it was accorded under the 'one country, two systems' arrangement of 1997 no longer applies. That could lead to the revocation of favourable trade and travel rules and undermine future investment. Portfolio flows would be the first to reverse, putting at risk Hong Kong's status as a key regional financial centre. But foreign direct investment might not be far behind. 

How will it end? As of today, debate on the controversial bill has been shelved and the administration is laying low, hoping the protests will die down. Most observers believe that once that happens, Beijing will insist on the law being passed and the government has the votes in LegCo, Hong Kong's pseudo-parliament, to do so.

Here, however, is my prediction: tempers have been sufficiently stirred up for China to kick this one into the long grass. It will find a face-saving way to delay implementation of the extradition law for now in order to calm business nerves -- because it cannot afford to add to its current list of economic problems. I hope I am right. 

  

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