Business sides with Beijing in Hong Kong

The Australian Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong has ignited debate by warning that pro-democracy protests might be detrimental to business.

As police attempt to dismantle barricades and re-open roads in Hong Kong, the unprecedented protests that have been going on for some weeks appear to be coming to an end.

Despite a valiant effort by demonstrators to reinforce barricades with bamboo scaffolding and cement, police -- using pepper spray and heavy-handed tactics -- have made relatively easy work of the barriers and some traffic is now beginning to flow again.

It was inevitable that the protests would eventually be cleared away, one way or another. The strategy from Beijing has been to wait the protests out in the hope that the students would tire out and Hong Kong citizens would become increasingly frustrated.

Truck drivers and taxi drivers have been some of the most vocal critics of the protests, complaining that the blocked roads were putting their livelihoods at stake.

Walking through Admiralty on Monday, it was apparent that anti-occupy protestors had become more organised. The two sides argued heatedly outside the legislative council.

While not taking a central role in the protests, ex-pats have still been involved. Among the thousands of posters and fliers festooning the area are messages of support from foreigners.

Standing amongst the protestors on Monday, with a yellow ribbon pinned to his shirt, was UK-born ex-pat Adrian Champion, a teacher in Hong Kong.

Champion, 40, says he wasn’t even aware of the protests until police started employing heavy-handed tactics on the protestors. The police chased protestors into areas where expats hang out, and where he lives.

“At that point, the protests came to me,” he says.

By moving into non-protest areas, it forced expats to make a choice, says Champion.

“They actually used tear-gas on the road outside the police headquarters, which is just down the road from all the open-front bars and clubs. At that point, everybody in the area just swelled out and joined the protests that night.”

Indeed, the views of foreigners, while not playing a central role in the debate, have nevertheless been part of the mix.

Among the thousands of posters and fliers festooning the area are messages of support from foreigners.

An anti-occupy article written by Gerard Millet, a banker and former president of the French Chamber of Commerce, has circulated throughout the business community and was even handed out to protestors by a local man dressed as a clown.

A day after police used tear-gas and pepper spray, the Australian Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong and Macau put out a press release that has prompted a backlash from Australians in the city.

"The present situation is damaging to Hong Kong's international reputation, may harm Hong Kong's international competitiveness, and is creating an uncertain environment that may be detrimental to investment, to job creation and to Hong Kong's prosperity into the future," the statement read.

“It reads like an article in the People’s Daily” one Chinese Twitter user remarked.

Hong Kong people know a thing or two about the use of vague language. Much of the current discontent in the city is because they were promised “a high degree of autonomy.”

In her 2010 book Underground Front: The Chinese Communist Party in Hong Kong, former legislator Christine Loh argues that the phrasing was an example of “intentional vagueness” cleverly designed to give a sense that Hong Kong would indeed enjoy day-to-day autonomy. 

“Broad generalities are useful to clinch a deal, leaving details to be worked out. Since the devil is in the details, workability and public acceptability depend on the final details.”

One Austcham member, who wished to remain anonymous, said the most frustrating thing about the statement was that none of the members were consulted.

“We’re still not sure about the internal corporate governance steps that were taken for how the media release was drafted,” they said.

“It was nothing more than cowardly kowtowing to perceived CCP backlash.”

The chamber has declined repeated attempts by China Spectator to clarify how the statement was formulated. When pressed if they would respond to the query, one board member replied, “What are you offering in return?”

But Austcham was not alone. Five other business groupings -- including the chambers of commerce of Canada, India and Italy -- took out an ad in Chinese-language media that expressed their “grave concerns about a threat that could potentially paralyze the Central business district.”

According to the Wall Street Journal, the Canadian Consulate in Hong Kong scolded the Canadian chamber, saying it hadn’t been notified of the move. Other chambers have either stayed out of the fray or taken a more neutral approach.

Austcham is the second-largest chamber in Hong Kong after the American chamber, so its view carries some weight.

Back in June, the big four accounting firms took out adverts in Hong Kong newspapers warning that foreign multinationals and investors might leave the territory because of the protests.

Now that UGL, an Australian firm, has been linked to a secret $7 million payment to Hong Kong Chief Executive CY Leung, it doesn't help the Australian community's image if our peak business body is picking sides in a highly contentious political argument.

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, true to her word that Australia would support liberal democratic values and freedom, urged China to ensure Hong Kongers have a genuine say in their elections.

But perhaps she should remind the Australian business community that they too should do their part.

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