By Oren Laurent
President, Banc De Binary
Hong Kong is a remarkable island, a hybrid of East and West, a fashionable city of harbours and high-rise towers. A British colony for over 150 years until China regained sovereignty in 1997, this semi-autonomous region is one of the top three global economic centres alongside London and New York. Its legal and democratic infrastructures have no doubt contributed to this financial feat. So, why was Hong Kong taken over on Sunday by tens of thousands of people protesting against a pro-democracy campaign?
The division stems from concerns about the election of the next chief executive, the leader of Hong Kong, in 2017; according to the South China Morning Post, the framework for the election is due to be released at the end of August. In the past, Hong Kong’s leader was chosen by a pro-Beijing committee. Now, China says that a nominating committee will present candidates for election and the public can then vote.
The pro-democracy campaigners argue that Beijing could simply exclude opponents and force Hong Kong citizens to elect one of a number of China sympathisers. They have formed a group ‘Occupy Central’ which is threatening to hold a sit-in and block roads in the financial district if Beijing does not allow the public to nominate their own candidates. Cue Sunday’s protest against this.
The objectors to Occupy Central split into two camps. Those waving Chinese flags and carrying banners, "Long live the Chinese communist party" favour the status quo. This is perhaps harder for us in the West, accustomed and appreciative of democracy, to relate to. Would you feel empowered and enfranchised by voting in an election where all candidates had to be approved first by China?
Those in the business camp, objecting to the means and not purpose of the protest, have a different concern. They argue that protestors would damage the local economy if they succeed in blocking off the city’s financial hub, especially if they were to become violent. Such is the fear about hurting business that the ‘Big Four’ global accounting firms, Deloitte, PricewaterhouseCoopers, Ernst and Young, and KMPG published a series of newspaper advertisements opposing the demonstrations. Similar ads were also taken out by the local chambers of commerce of Canada, Italy, India, Bahrain and Hong Kong itself.
In a city famed for its financial district, safeguarding corporate interests is obviously a priority. Yet, this is a city that has always boasted a capitalist economic system while safeguarding the rights and freedoms of its people, including, of course, freedom of speech.
Hong Kong must remember that its geographical and national ties to China combined with its outward-looking mindset and independent identity is at the core of its appeal to international businesses and investors.
In the long-term, Hong Kong’s future as a glorious economic power will be inextricably linked to its ability to both advance the cause of democracy and appease Beijing. Will it unite and rise to that challenge this month?
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